Jul. 14—This story was updated at 7:31 p.m. on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, with additional reaction and background information.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson announced that he is stepping down from the role in a letter to the community on Tuesday. His last day will be Aug. 17.
The notice comes less than a month before school starts and just hours after the district said in a news release that he will be attending a news conference Thursday with the mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County to launch an unspecified new education program.
"As a lifelong learner, I understand that transitions or seasons of change are necessary to continue cultivating your gifts to better serve others, and, after much prayer and reflection, I have determined that now is the appropriate season to pass the leadership torch as the superintendent of HCS," his letter said. "This is not a decision made lightly, but it is the right decision to allow the next leader to build on the work and take this great district to the next level."
Johnson, 38, did not offer any further details or say what he's doing next, and the district said he would not comment beyond his letter.
Johnson was selected as superintendent in 2017 through a 5-4 vote of the Hamilton County Board of Education. Early on, he reorganized the central office, creating positions including chief talent officer, chief equity officer and chief schools officer.
In his four years at the district, Johnson created several programs and initiatives to address lower-performing schools and prepare students for the workforce after graduation.
Johnson created the Opportunity Zone in 2017 to support 12 low-performing schools, a program he eventually dismantled in 2020. Another program he spearheaded in 2018, Future Ready Institutes, continues to gain traction.
Each institute focuses on a discipline, such as teaching, construction or robotics, to enable students to work hands-on in different fields and earn credits for college or other post-secondary qualifications. The 29 institutes are spread out among the district's high schools.
"I saw passion in Bryan. He cared deeply about all of the students, teachers and administrators. He had tremendous respect for what education can do to lift people up. He is trustworthy and honorable," said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. "Sure, we all have our critics, don't we? But with Bryan, I thought the criticism was unfounded. Unless you worked with him like I did, you might not see what he brought to our schools."
Last year brought a deadly tornado and a pandemic to Hamilton County, and Johnson led the district through rebuilding schools, switching to virtual learning and then returning to the classroom for in-person learning for about 90% of school days last year.
School board member Karitsa Jones, who represents schools in Brainerd and Tyner, said Johnson's leadership throughout helped improve the community's trust in the district.
"Under his leadership, our system is in a place that it's never been before. Our community is in a place that it's never been before, as it relates to their thoughts and opinions or trust in our school system, despite the trials that we've had with the pandemic and so forth," Jones told the Times Free Press on Tuesday. "So his leadership and his staff and his decisions and his guidance has guided Hamilton County Schools on a trajectory to go even further.
"I'm sad that he will not be the one to take us there, but I am confident that his executive cabinet and all of our administrators and teachers and employees and our students in our community will continue to push forward with the efforts that he started, and with the strategic plan that he and the board, we worked together to do, to continue to make Hamilton County the best school district in the state of Tennessee."
In the superintendent role, Johnson gained attention at the state and national level. He was named 2020 Tennessee Superintendent of the Year by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and a finalist for the 2021 National Superintendent of the Year award.
Johnson also was named as one of 24 Superintendents to Watch in September 2020 by the National School Public Relations Association. The Times Free Press reported that he was the third-highest paid superintendent in the state, because of a new contract that included a 5.5% pay increase and raised his base pay to $240,000. His salary for the 2021-22 school year is $252,399, according to the 2022 operating budget.
Hamilton County school board members praised Johnson for his leadership of the district.
Board member Tucker McClendon, who represents East Ridge, told the Times Free Press he was sad to hear that Johnson was stepping down.
"I think he's led the district with top flight, top shelf, amazing leadership over the last four and a half, five years, and that this district is in a much, much better place because of him, and for it to continue on the upward direct trajectory that it's on," McClendon said. "I wish him and his family, him, Candy and Bryan Jr. the best in their next ventures."
Board member Jenny Hill, who represents areas in North Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain and downtown, told the Times Free Press she was disappointed that Johnson is leaving but feels confident that the district is in better shape than where it started when he arrived.
"His work and the way that he leads has changed the way that we think about the possibilities for public education, not just in our county, but across the nation," Hill said. "While I would like nothing better than for him to stay for the rest of his career at Hamilton County Schools, I do feel confident that we as a system are in a much better place than we were when he joined our system, and we are better prepared than ever to know what is important when we begin to search for a new superintendent."
Jones said as a Chattanooga native and graduate of Hamilton County Schools, she was happy to see that Johnson's departure was on his own terms.
"Having been born and raised in Chattanooga, I am proud of the fact that Dr. Johnson's resignation is not the normal narrative to how we lose a leader in our public school system. So, I will say that I'm proud of that. It's more so, he's left on his own terms. He's just made a decision to move forward in this, it's no controversy, there's none of that, and I'm very proud of the fact that we're in a good space as a school system and our students are excelling and our staff morale is in a great place," Jones said. "But I'm very sad to see him go. I was very pleased with the work that he has done here. I think the bigger question for us as Hamilton County is, what is it about Hamilton County that we can't keep a superintendent?"
Contact Anika Chaturvedi at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.