Blunders follow high praise for school chief

Buses, shifts in plans, contracts dog Johnson

“We can’t expect this to be easy work, but we shouldn’t shy away from making the changes that are important for students,” said Superintendent Carol Johnson.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
“We can’t expect this to be easy work, but we shouldn’t shy away from making the changes that are important for students,” said Superintendent Carol Johnson.

The Boston School Committee heaped praise on Superintendent Carol R. Johnson six months ago when it extended her contract for five years, citing her success in boosting graduation rates and test scores.

One member even saw value in Johnson’s tendency to abandon her own controversial proposals. “She’s not afraid to say that ‘I made an error, and I need to go look and see what other factors I may have overlooked,’ ’’ Marchelle Raynor, the vice chairwoman, said at that meeting on April 27. “Her performance has been stellar for Boston.’’

But since then, Johnson’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by her missteps and snags on several fronts.

She has been unable to wrap up teacher contract negotiations and has struggled to get school buses to run on time. Last week, she abandoned a proposal to move Boston Latin Academy to the recently closed Hyde Park High School after a barrage of protests from students, parents, and teachers.

“It’s a shame that a series of political and operational miscues are raising questions about her and draining some political and capital support away,’’ said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization, who supports many of Johnson’s school-overhaul efforts. “I, like a lot of people, would like to see progress on this front, so she stops shooting herself in the foot.’’

The slowness in fixing the late buses rankled Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appoints the seven-member School Committee. At the start of last week, a quarter of the city’s buses were arriving late to school, prompting Menino to ask his special assistant to step in. By Friday, the rate had dropped to 19 percent.

“That one I’m angry about,’’ Menino said of the bus delays. “No bus should be late.’’

But Menino emphasized that he still has full faith in Johnson’s ability to lead the 57,000-student school system, pointing to her willingness to tackle such potentially divisive issues as closing schools.

“This is a tough city for change,’’ he said. “When people don’t want to be part of the change, they are out there throwing rocks at her.’’

Many students, teachers, and parents say that her proposals are poorly researched or crafted with little, if any, consultation with those directly affected by the changes. Most recently, they said they were surprised by Johnson’s proposal last week to change the location of four schools, as part of an effort to expand the schools and three others.

“Using the bus thing as a metaphor, if you can’t get the buses to run on time, what assurances do I have that you can move all these schools in a measured manner and have them ready for 2012?’’ asked Ziyad Hopkins of Roxbury, who has two children at the Mission K-8 School, which Johnson has proposed moving from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain.

Indeed, glitches marred the implementation of the closing and merger of about 18 schools last June. The changes resulted in the transfer of thousands of students to different schools and necessitated changes in transportation routes that school officials say have contributed to the late bus problems.

In an interview, Johnson defended her performance. She expressed frustration that the buses continue to run late, but emphasized that the School Department is working hard to fix the problem and said she appreciated the mayor’s support.

She also said that getting a new teacher contract is a top priority, but she wants to make sure the agreement is fiscally prudent and fosters academic changes that benefit students. And she said that facility changes, whether closing a school or moving one to a different building, can stir emotion.

“This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,’’ said Johnson, who previously served as school superintendent in Minneapolis and Memphis. “You have to push forward an agenda of excellence for every student. . . . We can’t expect this to be easy work, but we shouldn’t shy away from making the changes that are important for students.’’

She also pointed to successes over the last six months, including the opening of two in-district charter schools, notable gains in MCAS scores at underperforming schools, and more fresh food in cafeterias this fall.

The contract extension in April made Johnson somewhat of an anomaly for a school superintendent, potentially giving her eight years on the job. Nationally, urban superintendents tend to stay 3 1/2 years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 65 of the nation’s largest urban school systems.

The extension took many off guard. She still had more than a year left on her initial contract, signed in 2007, and negotiations to extend it occurred in private over the course of just two School Committee meetings.

The Rev. Gregory Groover Sr., chairman of the School Committee, said at the time that the committee was pleased with her performance and wanted to maintain consistency in leadership. In an interview last week, Groover said he thought Johnson was moving the schools in the right direction and said the revised facility proposal she presented last week was “very strong.’’

“We have every reason to be very confident in her ability to take on these issues and lead the school district,’’ he said.

He added that as with any job, there is always room for improvement and said he would like to see Johnson include principals, students, teachers, and parents more in the development of plans that affect their schools.

Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, echoed that sentiment.

“She doesn’t reach out enough in the initial stages of planning before going out with a preliminary proposal that would be subject for review,’’ Tyler said. “That may have worked in other cities, but in Boston there is a different culture and an expectation to be helpful and part of it.’’

In Memphis, Johnson was known for her determined but down-to-earth style, according to a 2007 Globe profile.

But when she left Minneapolis in 2003, Johnson was said to have confided to a school committee member that the district needed “more of a bulldog,’’ according to the Globe story. For instance, after mandating that the school district use only one reading program, she reportedly found it difficult to crack down on teachers who did not comply.

Johnson said she intends to involve the public more in coming months as she develops a proposal to overhaul the way students are assigned, rather than putting forward a proposal and getting reaction to it.

“It will be a thoughtful process,’’ said Johnson, who later added, “When you are making changes and not accepting the status quo, it creates some energy that you have to be respectful of and be responsive to. I think people respect we are doing the right things for kids.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.