Times Q&A: Superintendent Jim Johnson talks about the state of schools in Monticello

/ 6 April 2012 / jennifer

Paul Nolan, St. Cloud Times, April 6, 2012 –

Superintendent Jim Johnson, a former teacher and principal, used to spend a lot more time in classrooms. These days, his time is spent wrestling with budgets and personnel matters.

Monticello Superintendent Jim Johnson is surrounded by educators – at work and at home. The Cokato, Minn., native has a brother and two sisters who are either teachers or retired teachers, his wife is a teacher, her siblings are teachers and his oldest of four children is studying to be a teacher.

Johnson taught for 10 years in Sartell, Minn., before becoming an assistant principal and then a principal in New Prague. He moved to Monticello at the end of 1999 and served as the principal of the middle school for four years. He was the school district’s superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction for two years, and was named superintendent in July 2005.

His annual salary of $150,000 puts him about in the 48th percentile of superintendents at neighboring and similarly sized school districts, according to School Board President Scott Hill. Hill said the district has a great leader in Johnson, who he says has a great ability to communicate with teachers and other school staff, as well as the public.

“He’s a person who, when he walks into the room, you’re glad he’s there because he’s going to have a good conversation with you,” Hill said. “He can explain complicated things in a way that’s easy to understand, yet he doesn’t talk down to anyone.”

We visited with Johnson in his office recently and talked about everything from teacher morale to the condition of the district’s buildings.

Times: Is your work history pretty common for a superintendent?

Johnson: It is. In order to get an administrative license in Minnesota you have to have teaching experience.

Times: You often hear that professional athletes respect their coaches more if they also played the game professionally, and salespeople like a manager who has “carried the bag.” Do teachers like the fact that a superintendent has worked in the classroom?

Johnson: I would think so. If we’re working with a teacher to help them improve, I can always say “I’ve been there.” I love going back into the classroom. One of the best jobs I ever had was being a classroom teacher. You watch those kids’ faces light up, you build those interactions with kids, you get to know them and watch them grow. That’s why most of us went into this profession. I don’t deal with a lot with kids now. I make a lot of decisions that affect kids, but that direct involvement with kids is pretty minimal because you’re running a business.

Times: Do you have an “elevator speech” that explains your role and your duties?

Johnson: If you look at this as a business, you’re really the CEO. Everyone is a little bit different in terms of support staff. A lot of my time is spent watching budget. A lot of it is spent on personnel issues and all of the things that you have to be aware of from a legal standpoint. I try to stay as close as I can on the educational side of things. But a lot of that I have to delegate to people like Linda [Curriculum Director Linda Borgerding] and our principals.

Times: Like a CEO, would you agree that you’re only as good as the people who work with you?

Johnson: Absolutely.

Times: Talk about the trends in enrollment in the district since you’ve been superintendent and why it’s important to monitor that.

Johnson: From a business standpoint, every one of those kids who walks through a school door has a dollar sign attached to them because that’s how we receive our money. The other thing about growth is I think it’s an indication of a healthy school district and a healthy community. Too much growth or growth too fast can be difficult to manage. I wasn’t here back in the late ’80s or early ’90s when this district was growing extremely quickly. Growing very quickly puts a lot of pressure on your community to support the building of the facilities that you need to put those kids in. Those kids bring dollars with them, but those dollars are for the day-to-day operation and not necessarily building facilities.

Times: You monitor how many students decide to go to school outside of the district’s public schools. Where are you on that?

Johnson: We’re on the positive side right now. By that I mean we import more than we export.

Times: How are the district’s facilities – are you in good shape in terms of room and condition?

Johnson: We’re in excellent shape in terms of room. The biggest issue that’s staring us in the face in terms of condition is an issue in this building (the middle school and administrative offices) with boilers. There are three boilers that are used to heat this building. Two of them were installed in the 1950s and one of them was installed in 1971. We know that’s a big issue staring us in the face – a huge ticket item for us. We’re looking at different alternatives to get that taken care of.

Times: And you’ve explained during recent school board meetings that financially you’re in good shape

Johnson: We are in good shape, and that’s the result of a lot of hard work by an awful lot of people – a lot of extra work by a lot of people. You talked about a CEO only being as good as the people who work for him and I feel like we’ve got a lot of good people working for us. They are the right people to have on the bus and most of them are in the right seats.

Times: What about financing of education from the state as it stands today? What’s the level of your concern?

Johnson: I came into the profession in 1986. This is as difficult as I’ve ever seen it. Lawmakers are in a tough spot. I try to understand points of view; I try to be respectful of people and say I’ll disagree with your point of view, but I don’t disagree with you personally. Given where Republicans are in this state right now with their stance of no new taxes – that’s a firm stand and, whether you agree with it or not, they’re upfront about it – we’re not going to get any new money. We’re a big chunk of the state budget right now. In some ways, with all of the cuts that have gone on at the state level in the last few years, education has been held harmless. We haven’t gotten new money, but we haven’t gone backwards, either. We haven’t seen cuts of 2 or 3 percent like Health and Human Services.

Times: Do lawmakers truly understand what they are allotting to schools and how their delayed payments impact schools?

Johnson: Some of it gets to be a shell game, and I don’t know if individual legislators all understand. I do wish they would take some time and come out and talk with us and spend some time with us and see the challenges that exist in our schools that didn’t exist even five or 10 years ago to bring these kids into the 21st century. [Rep.] Bruce Anderson is coming out a week from today. I want to show him some of the buildings, show him some of the challenges that we have, I really want to spend some time to explain this technology initiative that we’re trying to get up and going and what could they do to help us get that off the ground. That could be a funding piece or allowing us to use some money in different ways.

Times: Let’s talk about teachers. I mentioned in a column recently that the profession has come under more criticism in the last few years than I can ever recall.

Johnson: I would agree.

Times: What’s the cause of that?

Johnson: It’s gotten to be a popular thing to bash schools. If you look at surveys with the public, they will say our local schools are great, but schools are a mess across the country. If everybody is saying that about their own school district, what’s the reality out there? Part of it has to do with parents being more involved than they ever have been and really being advocates for their children, which they should be, but it becomes very personalized for their kids. Rather than seeing the big picture, it becomes very personalized. The bigger thing, and I think this is what drives it, is our media and some of our politicians have taken a real negative tone toward education. Why? I don’t know.

Times: I think it’s more toward unions than education.

Johnson: It may be. The whole thing started way back in the mid-80s with a book that came out called “A Nation At Risk” that talked about how our kids are not competing on a world scale. Since that time, other people have grabbed onto that and it has evolved more lately into a union issue. The union piece of it is more recent, with some of the things that are happening in the Legislature right now, but even some of the criticism of public schools was in place before that. But you’ve seen it shift to a new level with what happened in Wisconsin and some of the things that are at the capitol now.

Times: Would you agree that the people who are harshest on teachers fall into a certain end of the political spectrum?

Johnson: If you take a look at the people who are representing us at the legislative level and if you look at the party line votes on a lot of these things, yes, I would agree with you. As far as our general public goes, I don’t see it as black and white as what we see in St. Paul. I’ve talked to some people who are extremely conservative who are also very supportive of teachers and the things that teachers do. I’ve talked to some people who slant more toward the liberal ways of thinking who are more critical of education in general.

Times: A MetLife survey of American teachers that was released last month stated that morale among this country’s teachers is at a 20-year low. Does that concern you?

Johnson: It does. I’m the youngest of five kids; three of us went into education. Two of my older siblings have recently retired. They were teachers their entire career and they said by the time they got out they had never seen the public perception of teachers as bad as it is. That does get to be hard. We have people who go into the profession of teaching because they have a passion for kids. I have yet to see a teacher that I’ve worked with in this district who is still here today who doesn’t have a true passion for kids and wants to see those kids go as far as they can.

Times: Would you say the low morale is mostly the result of the wave of criticism we’ve talked about?

Johnson: Yes. It’s tough when you go into a profession because it is your passion and you work hard on it every day, but it seems like every time you turn on the news or every time you pick up a newspaper somehow the profession is getting bashed.

Times: Can you do anything to alleviate this morale issue?

Johnson: You try to get out there and be supportive of your teachers. You try to make yourself visible. You try to make sure that they understand from my perspective they are valued and that we appreciate the things they do. We also have a supportive community, so they also hear it a lot from parents.

Times: Do you feel morale is strong in your district?

Johnson: I think it’s still pretty good here. This time of year is always a tough time of year to measure morale. It gets long.

Times: Let’s talk about teachers’ assessments. This is a huge issue on a lot of levels. It seems odd to me that as long as teaching has been a profession, we haven’t figured out a way to assess the performance of individual teachers.

Johnson: There hasn’t been a consistent and solid tool for assessing teachers. We’ve developed one in Monticello that we’re fairly happy with. It’s researched-based. The [state-mandated] assessment test scores are tough. Can they be a part of the overall evaluation? Yes, and we’re doing some of that now. But to make that a sole part of how you evaluate how a teacher does, boy that’s pretty tough when we don’t control all of the variables that come through our door every day.

Times: I think people in other walks of life look at it and feel there are a lot of complicated jobs out there. Take yours – do you have some way that people assess your job performance?

Johnson: Yes, the school board assesses my performance.

Times: So there are a lot of different aspects to your job, but someone has figured out a way to determine what kind of job you’re doing at it. Sure, teaching is a complicated thing, but why can’t we figure out a way to determine what kind of job an individual teacher is doing?

Johnson: I think we’re getting there. I’m pretty comfortable with the piece that we’ve put in place. You haven’t had consistency around the state and I think that’s why the Legislature is getting involved. I’ll give you an example. Here in Monticello, our new teachers are evaluated a minimum of three times per year, and that’s when we decide whether we’re going to keep them or not. Once you are tenured, you’re going to be fully evaluated once every three years. That’s what this district has been doing since the time I came and I assume before I came. There are other districts in which that has not happened. I’ve talked with veteran teachers who haven’t been evaluated in 20 years. That’s our own profession’s fault, and because we didn’t do a good enough job of getting that taken care of, now the Legislature is stepping in.

Times: Let’s talk about tenure. I’ve heard it mentioned many times from school board members that they want to be awfully careful in those first three years of assessments because once a teacher is tenured, it’s very difficult to get rid of them. Is that a good situation to be in?

Johnson: It’s hard, but it’s not impossible to get rid of somebody. Tenure came into being because they wanted to protect teachers from [losing their job] over something that has nothing to do with education. Tenure is there to protect teachers. I don’t believe, and I think our local union would agree with me, it is not there to protect poor teachers. Our union here has been supportive of me and of previous superintendents when we’ve moved to get rid of people who are tenured.

Times: How many times has that happened during your tenure?

Johnson: Twice in my seven years.

Times: And you’ve never been unable to get rid of a teacher who you thought should not have a position here?

Johnson: Right. We have a responsibility to help that person improve first. You’re going to invest in them. But if they don’t follow through with those things and do the things they should do to become an effective teacher, then we haven’t had trouble with our union in removing them. The key piece there is to define what makes an effective teacher.

Times: Well, then we’re back to how do you assess a teacher’s performance? Are we ever going to solve that?

Johnson: I think we’re getting close. What I can speak for is what we’ve done in Monticello. Since I came here in 1999, we have used something that is researched-based. We have criteria that we look at. There are observable things that we should be able to see if you’re a quality teacher or not.

Times: I heard a radio interview with Michelle Rhee (a lightning rod figure in education reform and the former chancellor of schools for Washington, D.C.) in which she said nobody is tougher on bad teachers than good teachers.

Johnson: I agree with that 100 percent. When we have an issue with a teacher, let’s say it’s a newer teacher who has just come in, our building administrators will probably hear that there’s a problem from other teachers before they hear it from anybody else because good teachers want to be surrounded by good teachers.

Times: The state Legislature is addressing the teachers union’s last in-first out system of designating which teachers keep their jobs when layoffs are necessary. Among other things, the union states frequently that LIFO protects more experienced, and thus higher-salaried, teachers from being laid off by a superintendent or school board that feels pressured to cut costs. Is it insulting to you that they don’t trust you to want what’s best for the students as much as anyone else?

Johnson: You might get a different answer to that depending upon whom you talk with. I have a great working relationship with our union. I think there is enough trust between the union and myself that they trust me not to do that. But if I get hit by a bus tomorrow and a new superintendent comes in, would that same level of trust be there? Probably not. There’s the potential in any district that they will make decisions based on money as opposed to what is best for kids.

Times: How do you feel about pay for performance for teachers. It exists in a couple of states but not in Minnesota.

Johnson: On the outside it might look great, but I go back to that piece of not having a good way of measuring that. If we had a really good, solid way of identifying a good teacher, then I think it’s a good thing.

Times: People both locally and nationally – and not just conservative people – have stated that teachers unions fight classroom reforms that are necessary to improve education. Steve Jobs was one who said this more than once. Do you feel that unions sometimes get in the way of change that should be made?

Johnson: With any of the initiatives we’ve tried to do, we’ve had good support from the local union to get it done. I do get frustrated from time to time how Education Minnesota [the state’s teachers union] represents teachers at a state level.

Times: How much leeway does the local teachers union have to not follow Education Minnesota?

Johnson: I don’t think they have a whole lot. But some of those things never get to us to talk about because those are big things that are going on at a state level. That does get to be frustrating. K-12 education changes very slowly and there are a lot of reasons for that. Sometimes unions get in the way. Sometimes parents get in the way. The state’s tourism industry in Minnesota gets in the way in the instance of not allowing us to start the school year until after Labor Day. If you want to get rid of the “summer slide,” starting school in the second week of August and getting done by the middle of May would be the right thing to do. If education is really so important in this state, why does tourism and the State Fair drive that issue? Let’s truly walk our talk. There are a lot of things that step in the way of us making the types of changes that we really need to make.

Times: You mentioned the book that came out in the ’80s that argued America had fallen behind in education compared to other countries. You’re surrounded both professionally and in your family and by teachers. Where do you feel this country stands in terms of the quality of primary education teaching?

Johnson: A discussion that nobody wants to have is that one of the things we do in this country that hardly anybody else does – Finland does, and they’re having more success with it than we are – is we educate everybody. We do not turn anyone away. A lot of countries, if they educate everybody, at a certain point they track them into a vocational route. We educate them all the same way. The opportunities are there for all of them. When you’re testing everybody as opposed to testing the top 70 percent of your country, that’s going to skew your scores. The other thing is in this country, I think we try to educate the whole child. We try to make them well-rounded people as they come up. Some countries are very math oriented or science oriented. We try to give kids a very broad spectrum in the K-12 setting.

Times: What’s the difference between today’s students and students when you were teaching in the classroom more than 20 years ago?

Johnson: I’ll give you more of a dad’s perspective on that because I’ve seen my own kids come through. Kids are busier today than when we were growing up. They’re going 100 miles per hour. I think the expectations that schools have for kids are much higher today than they were when we went through school. But in a lot of ways kids haven’t changed. You’ve got some who are very respectful of adults and you’ve got some who are going to push their toe over the line and see how far they can go over that line. That’s no different than what you would have had back in the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies. I think our kids are much more worldly today. They have been exposed to a much broader perspective on things than we did growing up.

Times: You sent me an article on technology in the classroom recently that stated there are some downsides to all of the technological capabilities we have both in and out of schools, specifically a widespread feeling that there are no longer so-called deep thinking capabilities among today’s students.

Johnson: Because we do bubble testing, you’re only going to get to very basic knowledge. In schools, we’ve gone away from the deeper thinking and we need to get back to that because if you look at what needs to be done in 21st century skills, deep thinking is a part of that. These technological tools are partly responsible for that. We need to look at how you become responsible users of 21st century technology. How does it become a tool, but not a crutch?

Times: What’s the key to that?

Johnson: It’s about creating things. It becomes more project-based kinds of things where kids have to produce something and it’s not just a knowledge piece that kids are spitting back out at you. It’s working with information and putting it together in a meaningful way that can go somewhere.

Times: Monticello as a district has performed well in recent years in student assessment test. Is the district insulated from some of the problems that affect city schools?

Johnson: From inner-city schools, absolutely. If you look at things like our minority population we don’t have the numbers that other districts have. If you look at free and reduced school lunches [a measure of households below the poverty level] we don’t have the numbers that other districts have. We’re right around 30 percent when some of the metro schools are 80 to 90 percent. We have a lot of community support, and not just from households that have kids in schools.