On a slushy February morning nearly five years ago, Bernadeia Johnson stood in a meeting room at the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue and engaged about 50 of Minneapolis Public Schools’ toughest critics. She was essentially auditioning for the superintendent’s job, the meat of which was continuing to implement an audacious overhaul that, as deputy superintendent, had been her baby for two years.
One after another, Johnson gracefully validated community members’ concerns. The district was failing their children, especially poor students of color, and the buck had to stop somewhere, she said. If the school board appointed her to take Bill Green’s place as superintendent, she would ask for a contract that contained very specific performance measures.
On Tuesday night, Johnson was not present when the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education passed a resolution accepting her resignation, effective Jan. 31. CEO Michael Goar was appointed her interim replacement, provided he and the district can get a variance from state licensure laws.
The mood at the sparsely attended meeting — a retreat at which incoming and outgoing members deal with internal board business — was somber. Aside from concerns voiced by board member Tracine Asberry that not all board members were in the loop until the 11th hour, there was little discussion.
The letter Johnson tendered to the board outlining her reasons is protected by employee privacy laws, and the letter being sent to MPS families has only a short explanation: “In order for MPS and our schools to continue making progress, they need a leader with a level of intensity and focus which I am unable to give at this time,” Johnson wrote. “My commitments to family — specifically the care of elderly grandparents — are increasingly in competition with the extraordinary demands of this position.”
Extraordinary demands indeed. The superintendent has appeared worn out in recent months. And four and a half years is a lengthy tenure in an urban district where bold changes are needed — and often resisted.
Johnson was also recently thrust into a dicey position by incendiary news stories and a legislative probe into a questionable $405,000 no-bid contract awarded to Community Standards Initiative (CSI), a politically connected group run by community activists Al Flowers and Clarence Hightower. For months, groups in the African-American community exerted enormous pressure on Johnson to take a side and say whether two Minneapolis DFLers — state Sens. Bobby Joe Champion and Jeff Hayden — strong-armed her into going forward with the CSI contract. Some of the pressure came in the form of a viral social media campaign using the hashtag #JimCrowJr.
An affidavit submitted to lawmakers in her name suggested she strove to protect the district from an untenable situation. A state Senate committee hearing into the matter proved to be more partisan theater than a quest for facts that might have supplied some much-needed context.
A lack of progress, and a new new plan
A new strategic plan was adopted earlier this fall amid controversy about lack of progress on the old one. And progress on marquee items on her agenda has been slower than she had previously hoped.
In early December, Johnson was peppered with unusually tough questions from parents at a “Soup with the Supe” event — a creation of hers where she is typically at her best — at a school in southwest Minneapolis.
A year ago, at Johnson’s annual performance review, school board members issued a strongly worded statement expressing frustration with the lack of progress in narrowing one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps. It was the fourth successive dismal report, though Johnson was not present. Outgoing board Chair Richard Mammen explained that she had gone home ill. Ironically, the very talented leadership team that presented the performance data in her absence was perhaps unified behind her for the first time in eight years.
In a district with 34,000 students, more than 5,500 educators, 76 schools and nine sometimes fractious board members, there are a million reasons for lagging performance, ranging from societal inequities that MPS did not create and can’t control to institutional “silos” that aren’t interested in a change in vision.
But as Johnson noted when she took the job, leaders ultimately take responsibility for outcomes. And Johnson was the type of leader who was known to break into tears when describing the scope of the need in MPS. She could not have been happy lately.
Groomed for leadership
Energetic, witty and engaging, Johnson is popular among those who interact with the district. She asks people where their kids go to school and, when popping into buildings, remembers to look for them. She corresponds with kindergartners. When the student she selected as her summer intern last year showed ambivalence, Johnson tracked down her mother and painted a stark picture of the girl’s options. She talks about growing up in segregated Selma, Alabama, and of being reminded how shaming schools can be to community members.
Johnson is steeped in MPS history, having been recruited and groomed for several leadership roles here and elsewhere by another beloved former MPS superintendent, Carol Johnson. After Johnson lured Bernadeia Johnson away to Memphis (which had hired her away from MPS), Green lured her back.
From 1999 to 2004, Johnson served as principal of Elizabeth Hall International Elementary, the north side school where her grandmother was principal in another era. She led, then as now, in the face of challenges: 19 of the Hall’s then-25 teachers were so new they were still on probation; 13 were in their first year.
Her tenure there would offer a preview of some of the issues that marked her time as superintendent. Her idea-a-minute energy brought a sense of urgency to the discussion about equity in education, but staff complained she was disorganized and struggled with implementing changes. As superintendent, she benefited when another Carol Johnson protégé, the hyper-focused Goar, was brought in 18 months ago to complement her strengths.
Even so, board members have struggled over the last year in particular to get information out of senior staff. At the board’s monthly meetings, parades of PowerPoints have been routinely followed by nuts-and-bolts questions that don’t always get direct answers.
Yet there have been big accomplishments. On Johnson’s watch, MPS has changed the way the district hires, places and evaluates teachers; the way in which it mines data; and how it works with new arrivals from other countries. There have also been unprecedented — if not always popular — partnerships with two fledgling charter school networks.
Perhaps the most symbolic of the problems that dogged her tenure was the teaching corps’ failure to consistently and enthusiastically dive into a program central to her vision, Focused Instruction. Johnson struggled to articulate the merits of the approach, and it’s believed that half or more of the district’s teachers simply ignored the initiative.
A system for using the same kind of real-time data that virtually all high-poverty, high-performing schools use, Focused Instruction was meant to be a tool for catching gaps in learning while they are small. Many teachers described it as another set of dreaded standardized tests, however.
‘The goals … are not going to deviate’
Tuesday night’s board vote to accept Johnson’s resignation was over in minutes. She will receive the equivalent of three months severance, or $47,500. She will also enter into a consulting contract worth $12,000 a month from March through June, and retains the contractual right to ask for a job as a principal.
In response to board questions, Goar said he has already begun the process of working with state licensing authorities to secure permission to lead the district by Jan. 31. The board will conduct a national search going forward.
The most immediate question would seem to be whether the change portends — or more likely, will be read as — a concession that the scope of the problems confronting the district are simply too big and too intractable for anything other than incremental progress.
The answer to that is likely unknowable. The styles and personalities of the new board members to be sworn in next month are largely unknown, as is the chemistry of the board as a whole. Because the plan still on the table involves radically shrinking the size of the central office, there’s no reason to think they won’t face the same resistance.
Goar and the other ranking district executives are believed to be firmly committed to the strategies Johnson worked to implement. “The goals that she is working for are not going to deviate,” Goar told board members old and new during the brief discussion. “It’s what we will pursue going forward.”
He might ask to be considered as a part of the search for a permanent superintendent, he added, and did not want to be treated as a placeholder: “I would like to be held accountable for moving the district forward.”