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‘I wasn’t shocked by anything’: a Q&A with former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson

Johnson weighs in on where Sergio Paez went wrong, the continuing saga to name her successor, and her plans to write a ‘tell-all’ book.

Bernadeia Johnson: "Anytime I’m shocked by something in Minneapolis, something else happens that changes the shock factor."
Courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools

A full year has passed since former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced her resignation. And as evidenced by the turmoil of MPS’ Tuesday night board meeting, her successor — whoever it is — will have to grapple with ongoing board dysfunction, a lack of community-board consensus, and a slew of issues surrounding a glaring achievement gap and high suspension rates.

Curious to get her take on it all, MinnPost reached out to Johnson for an interview. Prior to the board meeting, Johnson — who recently announced plans to write a “tell all” book on her experience as superintendent — said she didn’t have a strong opinion on who the best candidate might be, and planned on tuning out the clamor of the meeting. But after the board rejected preferred candidate Sergio Paez and attempted to move forward with interim superintendent Michael Goar, Johnson admitted she couldn’t resist the urge to watch.

You told me you were going home to unwind, but Twitter tells me you were following the board meeting …

People were calling me, asking, “Are you watching this?” I was actually out to dinner with friends. I said, “I can’t stay here any longer, sorry.”

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She drove straight home to watch the meeting, missing the State of the Union address for the first time since she can remember, because she was so sucked into the drama of what was happening in Minneapolis.

I wasn’t shocked by anything. Anytime I’m shocked by something in Minneapolis, something else happens that changes the shock factor. You get to the point where you’re no longer shocked. I think what you saw is people who care, who are committed…. What I don’t like about it is I don’t like when a board meeting is disrupted [because] you’re distracting from the work getting done.

Do you think the board should move forward with Goar?

It’s just a common-sense approach to have a leader who’s been here, who knows the community, who’s worked in the community, who’s worked for the district before. People haven’t talked about that. This is not Michael’s first tour of duty with Minneapolis. He knows a lot of teachers and principals within the organization. And to me, he’s the best candidate for the job now. He can be a unifying voice. If they’re gonna start the search over — which it sounds like they’re thinking about doing — they need somebody who can keep the buses moving and make sure that there’s no distractions from the work. To me, he’s the person who should be put in that role.

There was a lot of talk about addressing dysfunction among board members. Do you think it holds any weight?

I believe they’re well intentioned. I can say this board has held — not just this composition of the board — retreats and opportunities to try and get on the same page for years. … [But] what’s the plan to make sure that you revisit what you’re gonna do and how do you hold each other accountable? This is not a new conversation. … It’s like a family and a marriage. It’s not reasonable to think that nine different people with different backgrounds, different experiences, different values will agree on everything. But they have to find a way of coming to a consensus around the things that they should support.

Community members voiced support for a homegrown candidate. What are your thoughts on this?

My thing is that every principal who has a superintendent license has had no superintendent experience. That, to me, is a little risky. I think it’s a huge leap to go from principal to superintendent in a district that’s as complex, political and large as Minneapolis is. It’s like going from playing pee wee football to playing for the Vikings.

There’s talk you have been approached to lead the district again. Is there anything to the speculation?

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No one who has the power to make it happen has. No board member has talked to me, or has had a delegate talk to me about coming back in the interim. I have had people ask me, or tell me I should go back or call the board. But I think that day is gone. Part of me says I would…. But I think when I left, it was clear that we were separating. If a school board opportunity did open out here [in Brooklyn Park], I think I would consider it. I’m always looking for opportunities to give back and serve. I still feel like I have more to give.

What other thoughts do you have on the search for your successor?

Here’s the thing about the superintendent search that the community should understand. The two most important things the board does is search for a superintendent and support them. It’s all around that leader. Statutorily, also functionally, the relationship between the board and the superintendent is key to the functioning of the district. People forget a superintendent is looking for a board. You could start the search over, but do they feel like the better candidates were holding back? And how do they think candidates will think about the district after what just happened? The other thing is I believe after you pick your finalist, you do your site visit. Everything around gathering information about the candidate should be done before the final naming of the [top pick].

Do you think the board would have success attracting a new candidate, if it were to open up the search again?

Here’s what people don’t think about. If you put your name in a hat to be a superintendent — and you’re already in a current position, are selected as a finalist and you don’t get it — how do you go back to your current district? As soon as you say you’re leaving, you might as well resign from your district…. The reality is, with the revealing of names, if you get on a list, you’ve already got to repair relationships. In some ways, they’ve gotten people who felt like they could walk away. They didn’t have any sitting superintendents who applied, as far as I know. If I think back to the pool, there is an untapped source of people. The question is: Are they willing to take a risk with this board?

While Johnson didn’t make any clear predictions on Paez’s future, she did offer her take on where he went wrong. In her opinion, the issue isn’t necessarily whether the allegations of staff abusing special-education students during his tenure in Holyoke, Mass., hold as much merit as some think. The issue is in how he addressed the allegations.

Do you think Paez could have risen above the allegations?

He basically said “I followed the law, did an investigation.” So the law says it’s OK to restrain kids like that. But, see, this is when you have to know your community. In Minneapolis, where 19 or 21 percent of our students are special ed, we used to have doors that had padding on the walls. When kids were misbehaving, we’d push the button on the wall, so the kid couldn’t get out the door. You could see them through the glass. That was legal, but we stopped doing it. This is when you’ve got to reach down in your gut and say, I know that legally we can do it, but I have to tell you the practice itself appalls me. I find it immoral and inappropriate to restrain students with special needs. To me, he missed an opportunity to share his personal feelings about the restraint of students. We can follow the letter of the law, but we also can be compassionate. People want their leaders to be strong, superhuman. But ultimately, they want you to be compassionate, empathetic and caring. I don’t know if anyone’s giving him that feedback.

What advice would you give your successor in terms of navigating school-board politics?

The thing that I tried to do with the board, that my predecessor didn’t do, is I tried to meet with them one-on-one every month. No one board member should know something that all the board members don’t know. I would also say, if there’s something you believe is important to student achievement and you don’t have the board’s support, do it anyway. Be willing to lose your job. Be willing to come and fight for the children as long as you can, but know that you could lose your job. Don’t ignore any level of micromanagement. Because as soon as you do, it’s a slippery slope. Before you know it, they’re calling staff to tell them what to do. I had board members going directly to staff, telling them what to do.

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The ongoing saga of the superintendent offers a perfect backdrop for Johnson’s future book. It’s not that she wants to see leadership of the district fail. Rather, she anticipates her book — once it comes to fruition, she jokes, adding that just talking about is making her anxious to put pen to paper — might serve as a valuable resource for future superintendent candidates, who find themselves blindsided by the political nuances of a major urban school district.

Johnson says she learned some of her most important lessons as superintendent through trial and error. Closing in on her first year of retirement, she’s been inspired to outline some possible chapters, and she anticipates the project will be “cathartic … a form of closure and moving on.” 

What topics will you cover in the book?

The book will [feature] female superintendents, especially women of color, because I do think their experiences are different. Things were done and said to me that would never be done to a white man. For example, when you’re in a room and talking about something, making this profound statement and people don’t respond. Then five minutes later a white man says the same thing [and people give him credit.] I would call it out, because I couldn’t help myself. I felt I owed it to myself, but it was exhausting.

Johnson says her book will address the politics of the job, including topics like school board governance, labor relations and community relations. But it will also venture out into some eyebrow-raising chapters like “stories of mischief,” where Johnson plans to address the challenges of dealing with staff who misbehave. Even though she often prayed her employees would make responsible decisions, dealing with staff issues was a regular reality of the job. And, of course, she’ll include a chapter on students.

I’m so deeply impressed with the high school students of Minneapolis; they’re thoughtful, they believe in social justice. They are articulate around the issues that impact their communities. They have the potential to do and be anything. When they [were coping with] the Ferguson and Trayvon Martin [shootings], my students walked out. To me, this is the best lesson they will ever have. We have to have safety, but nobody’s going to be suspended, punished for [exercising] their constitutional rights. One of my proudest moments was telling the St. Paul superintendent, “My kids don’t wait [for National Walkout Day] to walk out.”

Last year, during her exit interview with MinnPost, Johnson cited family obligations as one of the main reasons she decided to resign. She wanted to focus on being the primary caregiver for her grandparents, 107 and 99 at the time. Reserving more energy for her husband and children, as well as for herself, also proved beneficial, she says.

She also currently serves on the boards of TPT and the Phillips Eye Institute’s “Investing in Sight, Changing Lives” campaign. And, curious about a new charter school that’s opening near her house, she suspects she’ll volunteer there as well.

How else have you been staying busy in retirement?

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My grandfather passed away two months ago, at 107. It was a celebration of life. We’re certainly sad, but he’s done a lot for the community. And my grandmother is still being naughty. I’ve been trying to exercise, eat better, eliminate as much stress as I can. I’m doing some work with E4E [Educators 4 Excellence], and the Mankato State University Edina campus, working with leaders on developing their equity lens around issues that impact students of color. That’s been really good work for me because it’s been work where I’ve had more freedom to talk about issues of race and inequality.

It’s no secret that strained relations with a board fractured by an expensive, bitter election last year contributed to Johnson’s decision to resign. She felt the board was questioning her leadership capabilities and failed to support her when her integrity came under fire. Self-described as sensitive, she says she struggled to rebound emotionally.

What aspects of the job weighed on you most during your tenure?

I started to see the lack of civility, especially when you have people that are really competent of communicating in ways people would understand. The name calling, shaming and embarrassing — all I could think about is, is this how we model for the children? Come with an agenda of things you want to be a part of changing. Name calling is a nonstarter, nonproductive.

What do you miss most about being MPS superintendent?

The thing I miss the most is being around students and children and dedicated adults who are committed to making a difference in the lives of students. I also miss some of the challenges, without a doubt. I miss identifying a problem and saying, “Let’s do it.” I wasn’t able to put a dent in lowering the achievement gap. I wanted to be among the educators in Minneapolis who said, “We finally got some traction around changing it.” That opportunity is missed for me, but I think it’s available to the next leader who comes in and works with a united board to get it done. I don’t miss making decisions about cold weather. That was the craziest.