As Carol Johnson prepares to step down after six tumultuous years as Boston’s superintendent of schools, her job performance has become a central issue in the city’s first competitive mayoral race in a generation. Johnson’s critics portray her as an ineffective and indecisive steward, while her admirers say she’s been an innovative and compassionate leader. So how’d she do, really?
The quality Johnson is most likely to be remembered for in Boston is the highly personal touch she’s brought to her work. On her excursions to the well-appointed offices of white-collar Boston, she unfailingly greets custodians and waitstaff. When she visits a school she makes a point of wandering around a classroom, asking students where they’re from, what they’re learning, and what their plans are for the future. If there’s a child working a bit apart from the others, she’ll invariably go over to say hello. This past January, when Governor Deval Patrick announced his education initiative at the Orchard Gardens K–8 School, in Roxbury, Johnson was supposed to be part of the scrum standing behind him for the television cameras. When Patrick began to speak, the various officials dutifully gathered around—except for Johnson. She was huddled on the edge of the crowd with two of the teachers whose kids had just performed for the governor, laughing about what had gone into preparing them for that day. That same month, after Gabriel Clarke, an eighth grader at the Curley K–8 School, in Jamaica Plain, was shot one evening while on his way to choir practice, Johnson quietly went to visit him and his mother in the hospital.
Even her adversaries admire her personal skills. “She is a kind person who cares very much about the school system,” says Richard Stutman, the union president. “She’s kid-friendly. She’s compassionate. And she’s a good human being.”
That said, both Stutman and City Councilor John Connolly, who is probably Johnson’s most prominent critic, believe she is out of her depth. In an interview, Stutman uncharacteristically refused to criticize Johnson’s management style directly, but he hasn’t always been so circumspect. “They are so tentative, the slightest flicker or breeze changes their mind,” he fumed to the Globe a couple of years ago about Johnson and her team. “It’s a terrible and ineffective way to run a school system.”
Connolly, who doesn’t see eye to eye with Stutman very often, agrees. “I think overall it’s been a pretty weak performance,” he says. “She has faults when it comes to management of the system. Over time we continue to see a failure to implement a long-term strategic plan, and the schools seem constantly mired in crisis mode and reaction mode.”
Almost since Johnson took over, she’s had a habit of making proposals that, as with the 2009 school-assignment redo, she’s had to pull back when they proved too controversial, or that weren’t as thoroughly vetted as they should have been. Her proposal to move the prestigious Boston Latin Academy is a case in point. It was part of a larger shuffle intended to create additional space at successful high schools, but it turned out that Johnson’s staff hadn’t taken into account the school’s priorities for how it scheduled classes, and so had miscalculated how much room it would need. For all its good intentions, the incident struck even admirers as tone-deaf. “The icons of the school system are the exam schools,” says Paul Grogan, the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “They’re one of the few things that keep middle-class families in the city and sending their kids. You can’t just make an announcement that you’re moving one.”
Yet Johnson’s willingness to change tack in public also has its defenders. “She’s not afraid to go public before she’s figured things out,” says Neil Sullivan, the Boston Private Industry Council’s executive director. “We can all have an opinion on whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But you could say that’s how you’re authentic in seeking a community response: You don’t try to figure it all out before you allow people to react.”
Vetting ideas in public is not easy. Late in 2010, Johnson floated a series of proposals to close, merge, expand, and move schools. In part, she was driven by a conviction that students in poorly performing schools would be better off if they were moved to better schools. And in part, her calculation was financial. The district had some 5,400 empty seats, costing roughly $4,000 each, and with the state licensing new charter schools it seemed unlikely they’d be filled anytime soon. The sudden influx of 1,000 new students with special-ed diagnoses in the earliest grades that caught school officials by surprise in 2012 wasn’t anywhere on the horizon.
Many parents were pleased with the changes, since low-performing schools were merged with better ones, while popular and higher-performing schools, like the Boston Arts Academy and Fenway High, got room to add more seats. But parents with kids in the schools facing closure, like the Agassiz, in Jamaica Plain, packed community meetings to protest. Parents in Mission Hill, meanwhile, objected bitterly and vocally to the well-liked Mission Hill K–8 School’s moving across town to take over the old Agassiz space. On the December night that the school committee voted to approve the reshuffling, a packed, restive audience repeatedly booed and heckled Johnson as she read her explanation aloud. “You are robbing our future by closing our school!” one student yelled. “Shame on you!” parents shouted at the school committee after its vote.
Johnson is philosophical about the brickbats that have come her way. “How can you feel under attack,” she muses, “when people come to talk about their children? They come out because they want their kids to get the best education possible. That’s admirable! It’s exactly what you want them to do.” And as bruising as vetting ideas in public can be, Johnson considers it not just part of her job, but a crucial part. “That is the work,” she says. “Ideally, you want to elevate community discussions so that people are so involved and committed that they own the outcome.”
There are still parents rankled by the closings fight. But the system as a whole is better off because of the mergers and closings, insists John McDonough, the school district’s longtime chief financial officer. “We couldn’t afford to keep on paying for 5,400 empty seats,” he says. Schools that benefited from new space, like the Boston Community Leadership Academy and New Mission High School, have seen their popularity and waiting lists grow. And it’s worth noting that the next big initiative—this year’s revamp of the district’s broken student-assignment process—involved one long public process. Johnson learns from her experiences.
Whatever her ups and downs, Johnson has had the steady backing of the one political figure who has counted most: Mayor Menino, with whom she talks several times a week. He publicly backed Johnson through the Rodney Peterson imbroglio and the school-closings fracas. He made the highly fraught school-assignment overhaul a joint endeavor, throwing his political weight behind the effort while Johnson’s team provided the data and technical support. Last year, when she began traveling back to Memphis regularly to care for her ill husband, Menino filled in for her at public events. After he fell ill, she returned the favor. “The mayor feels extremely close to her,” says Martha Pierce, Menino’s education adviser. “They’re each other’s biggest champion. And he trusts her in her decision-making.”