Minneapolis School Board names new superintendent

Bernadeia Johnson
Minneapolis Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, speaking at Tuesday night's school board meeting, was named as the superintendent of the Minneapolis district after Bill Green retires this summer.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Members of the Minneapolis School Board have selected the person they want to lead the district after current superintendent Bill Green retires this summer.

The board Tuesday night named Bernadeia Johnson as its only candidate for the job. She's currently the district's deputy superintendent. A final vote on her candidacy is expected on Feb. 9.

Johnson said after the meeting that she is both nervous and excited. She said she thinks she's the only candidate for the job because she knows the district, and won't change the strategic plan the district has developed for moving forward. After all, Johnson was a main author of that plan.

"You're not going to get all new stuff. There's not going to be a 'start-over' here," she said. "We've made a committment. We've gotten value into the strategic plan, and we'll continue to work that plan with a little more focus."

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Johnson, 50, will assume leadership of a district she's known for years. Even while growing up in Selma, Ala., Johnson visited her grandparents in the Twin Cities -- her grandmother was a school principal in Minneapolis.

Johnson taught in St. Paul before being recruited to Minneapolis by her mentor, then-superintendent Carol Johnson. When Johnson left to become superintendent in Memphis, Johnson followed and soon became deputy superintendent there.

Johnson returned to Minneapolis a few years later, and in 2006 was a finalist for the St. Paul superintendency, losing out to fellow Selma native Meria Carstarphen.

Johnson calls it a difficult time for the district. Minneapolis still doesn't have a new teacher's contract in place, even though the state deadline was last Friday.

The district faces a multi-million-dollar budget deficit, and that doesn't account for any funding cuts that might come from the state in coming months.

There's still a considerable gap between how well white students perform compared to students of color. And thousands of students must find new schools to attend next year, after the district announced closures last year to save money.

But the fact that she knows all of this is why School Board Chair Tom Madden says Johnson is perfect for the job. Madden also says that's why there was no need to name multiple semi-finalists to pick from - as St. Paul did last year. Johnson, he says, can have a fast start.

"If you bring in new people, they generally bring their own ideas," he said. "You generally have turnover at the administrative level, and then that derails us from the effort we've put into the strategic plan. We've got our roadmap and we've started down it. We've got a long way to go, but to take a chance to divert from the roadmap is not one we want to take."

Still, the announcement Tuesday night surprised some. Minneapolis teachers union president Lynn Nordgren said she had no idea the board was going to make this move when she showed up at the meeting.

"The expectation, from what we heard from teachers and parents and community, was that there was going to be a wider search. We thought that would make for a healthier process," said Nordgren. "However, we understand the need for stability. We understand the fact that Bernadeia has been a successful principal, has an understanding of how our district works, and so that would be a natural choice."

Indeed, the move shows just how different a search process like this can be from district to district. St. Paul hired a search firm; Minneapolis did not. St. Paul picked multiple semi-finalists; Minneapolis did not. Yet both districts ended up going with an internal candidate to fill the job.

In fact, with Johnson's appointment, the state's four largest districts have now all named new leaders in the past 12 months, and all four were internal -- Johnson in Minneapolis, Valeria Silva in St. Paul, Jane Berenz in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, and Dennis Carlson in Anoka-Hennepin.

The Minneapolis district will hold meetings from Feb. 1-3 to give the public a chance to meet Johnson. Her formal interview with the board will be on Feb. 4, and a final vote on her candidacy will take place Feb. 9. From there, the board will start negotiating Johnson's contract.