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Yvonne Abraham

Carol Johnson knows the price of public service

Her faith is strong: God knows best. Things happen as they’re meant to.

But some days since she lost him, Carol Johnson can’t help wondering: “Should I have picked up on something? Should I have gone there more frequently, or left here earlier?”

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Maybe, if she had been in Memphis, where her ailing husband lived, and not here, he might not have passed, or at least not alone.

Johnson is grieving. She and Matt had been together 40 years, through three children and two careers in education — his as a teacher, and hers as a schools chief in three cities. He died on March 11.

The Boston school superintendent, 65, announced her retirement last week, after six years in one of the most difficult jobs in the city, if not the country. Leading an urban system serving poor students, whose problems go way beyond the classroom, trying to fix failing schools in ways sure to alienate some no matter what, the job demands a great deal of anybody. It has taken an inordinate amount from Johnson. Despite that, she is genuinely pained at the prospect of leaving in July.

But it’s time — has been for a while. Matt was hospitalized for weeks last fall, with ailments Johnson doesn’t want to get into. She had to reset her priorities. Her well-paid job is “more than full-time” for anyone; the way Johnson does it involves even longer hours, and more personal contact. “You’re torn about the amount of time it takes to do your job well, and having time with your family,” she says. It’s a refrain familiar to legions of women. She decided she would leave, but not until a new school assignment plan — a politically and historically charged undertaking — was set. “My husband needed me,” she says. “But I had to balance that with being very close to resolving this.”

The new plan was supposed to be done before Christmas, but was delayed. And so Johnson put off her return to Memphis. After a year of public discussion, the plan was approved on March 13.

That may be the most visible part of Johnson’s legacy. There is more: The highest graduation rates in city history; 30 percent more students taking college-level courses; a third fewer dropouts; the highest enrollment in eight years.

On the minus side, half the city’s schools are still struggling. She has tried to bring more radical changes to those, to adopt some of the practices of charter schools — extended days, for example — but the teachers union fought her. She hasn’t attracted or retained enough talented administrators.

Few, if any, superintendents before Johnson had tried changes as radical as those she has pursued. None has worked in a more fractious environment. Still, she’d be the first to say she’s not perfect. She places a high premium on community feedback, but that has sometimes led her to hastily announce initiatives that didn’t seem fully thought out. She’s famous for her compassion, but had way too much of it for one principal, Rodney Peterson, who was put on probation for domestic assault.

Johnson and her husband didn’t speak much about the Peterson mess, she says. He knew her intentions were good, always said those who thought ill of her just didn’t know her. “I always knew he was proud of my work,” she says. “I am not sure he knew how proud I was of him.” In their calls and visits, they usually talked about family, and the future, the movies they’d both avoided so far because they wanted to see them together.

“I thought we had more time,” she says.

There will be many attempts to sum up Carol Johnson’s tenure between now and the end of the school year. However the record ends up, let it also show this: This public servant gave far more to the city than it was reasonable to expect. She gave it gladly, and with all her heart.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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