Former Superintendent Jim Johnson leaves legacy of leadership

Jim Johnson
The Monticello Public School District is hosting an open house for Dr. Jim Johnson on Monday, August 28, 2017, from 3:30 until 6 p.m. at Little Mountain Elementary School, 9350 Fallon Ave. Refreshments and cake will be served.

When Jim Johnson was announced as the new superintendent of the Monticello Public School District in January of 2005, it was to considerable praise and cheer from school board members, staff, students, and even the former superintendent.

When Johnson bid farewell at his final board meeting on Monday, Aug. 7, it was once again to considerable praise.

In the interim, Johnson completed a 12-year tenure as superintendent of the Monticello schools that was filled with both tragedy and triumphs. Through it all, according to many, Johnson and his steady hand continued to lead the Monticello School District forward, financially, academically, and in many other ways.

Scott Hill, a school board member at the time of Johnson’s appointment to the superintendent position, spoke as a citizen at the Aug. 7 meeting.

“I want people to understand who he is, what he’s done for this district, and how far this district has come since he started here 12 years ago,” said Hill. “We are orders of magnitude better in how we operate, our academics, and our finances from when he started.”


Coming ‘home’

When Johnson, his wife Teri, and his four kids decided to come to Monticello so Johnson could take a position as the principal at the Monticello Middle School in 1999, they knew they were moving closer to home. Jim and Teri had both grown up in Cokato, but were at the time living in the New Prague area, where Johnson was a principal.

“It was an opportunity to come back closer to home,” said Johnson. “The Monticello school district had an excellent reputation. As we looked with a young family about where we wanted to raise our kids, and being closer to family and things like that, this was a great location.”

Johnson spent four years as the principal at Monticello Middle School. He recalls now that when he first took the job, he had no vision for further advancement in the district.
“I had no intention of ever being superintendent,” Johnson told the board on Aug. 7, in his farewell address. “I didn’t have my license.”

But during those four years, Johnson worked closely with then-Superintendent Mike Benedetto, and started to gain a further appreciation for and interest in the position.
In 2003, when Monticello created an assistant superintendent position, Johnson decided to take a chance.

“I decided to go after that and see what it was going to be like,” he said. “There were no promises that I would [eventually] get the superintendency, and if I did, there were no promises on my part I would take it.”

His two years in the new position turned out to be very fulfilling. Johnson worked in curriculum, an area of passion for him, and got to learn from Benedetto, who had spent 30 years in the Monticello School District.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Johnson, who added that having Benedetto as a mentor was incredibly valuable. “I learned a ton from him. I learned how a district ran. I learned how to work with a board, and I learned the importance of working with the public at a different level. Mike was really a good role model for me with that piece.”

When Benedetto announced just more than a year later that he would be stepping down in the summer of 2005, Johnson decided to throw his hat in the ring. After having a chance to make an impact at a classroom and school level, and with the assistant superintendent experience under his belt, he felt ready to take the next step.

“I took a look at it as an opportunity to do something for the whole district,” said Johnson. “I was a person who as a classroom teacher always felt like it was my job to help kids be successful, and then as a principal it was help my teachers be successful. It was my opportunity to have a whole district be successful.”

However, Johnson, despite his ties to Monticello and the stature in which he was held in the community, wasn’t just given the position.

The school board went through an extensive search, drawing 30 total applicants for the position. Out of those 30, they named three finalists. It was Ken Scarbrough and Keith Dixon, both of whom held superintendent positions at the time, and Johnson.

The school board conducted interviews and reference checks on and with the three candidates, before deciding on Jan. 25 of 2005 that Johnson would be their man.

It was a decision met with applause from many within the district, and one that the board felt confident in.

Hill spoke of his confidence in Johnson at that first meeting.

“You’re the best man for the job and I have no doubt that you’ll do an excellent job,” he said at the time.

And Benedetto, who still had six months left in his position as the superintendent, was possibly the most pleased.

“I know the job and I know what it takes, and I know Jim and what he’s capable of as a leader,” Benedetto told the Monticello Times. “The board made a wise decision.”

Former Monticello Superintendent Jim Johnson speaks to the crowd during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Memorial Entrance to the new Monticello Memorial Stadium. The stadium is just one part of a massive district overhaul that has gone on the past couple years, and is a major point of pride for Johnson from his 12-year tenure as superintendent. (Staff photo by Clay Sawatzke)
Former Monticello Superintendent Jim Johnson speaks to the crowd during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Memorial Entrance to the new Monticello Memorial Stadium. The stadium is just one part of a massive district overhaul that has gone on the past couple years, and is a major point of pride for Johnson from his 12-year tenure as superintendent. (Staff photo by Clay Sawatzke)

A bumpy start

If Johnson had a vision of how his first year on the job would go, real life certainly didn’t follow the path.

Just three months into his tenure as the district superintendent, Johnson received a bombshell of a revelation from his finance director.
It was the middle of October in 2005 when a just-completed audit from the previous year showed that the district had a fund balance of $200,000, or 1.2 million dollars less than what they’d been expecting.

“That was scary,” said Johnson. “That was a very scary thing.”

In his interviews, Johnson had told the board that the one area where he felt he needed to improve and learn the most was finances. Here he was, just three months in, scrambling to fix a major financial mess that dropped out of the sky on an otherwise unremarkable fall day.

Johnson said at the time, and says now, that the mistake didn’t come from one particular thing. It was a series of processes that led to the miscalculation, and the new superintendent said at the time that he had no interest in laying blame.

“To me, it doesn’t do any good to point fingers. What we have to do is figure out what the problem is and we have to fix it,” said Johnson in 2005. “That’s where I have to put my time and energy. I’m the type of person where you take the cards that you’re dealt and you make do with it and make it work.”

Johnson would spend the next two years dealing with it, making cuts and tough decisions to try and keep the district from a negative operating balance. He and the district hoped for relief in the fall of 2006, when they proposed a 10-year referendum to the district.

That measure failed by a 4,461 voters (60 percent) to 3,044 (40 percent) margin.

“I think the community was still a little bit unsure of whether they could trust the district, whether they could trust me with the decisions that were being made,” Johnson told the Times this week. “That was a difficult one to have that failure, because you knew you had to turn around then and make some tough decisions.”

One year later, following a lot of hard work within the district, some hard cuts, and a lot of listening and talking to community members, Monti returned with a referendum in 2007. That one, a 2.6 million dollar referendum, was approved by a margin of 2,381 to 1,847.

“That was big,” said Johnson. “That really helped us turn the corner financially. That helped us bring some things back and it really helped us provide some opportunities for kids that we hadn’t been able to do before.”

But financial woes were hardly the only thing Johnson faced in the beginning. That winter, the district lost two beloved people. Tom Keating, an icon in education, passed away in January, and Doug Miller, a talented and kind band director that was long a student favorite, passed away in February.

“They were two real icons in the district, and people that provided a lot of leadership,” said Johnson.

Three months later, in early May of 2006, a fire at the middle school spread smoke all over the building and rendered it unusable for the rest of the school year. Johnson commended the middle school staff for their tremendous work that year, when the students attended class at the high school on an every other day schedule for the final few weeks. That was a theme for how Johnson said he was able to steer his, and the district’s, way through those tough times.

“I had a lot of great people around me. The board really supported me at that time, our administrative team supported me, the teachers did, the whole community came forward and supported the district,” he said. “It was kind of a ‘wow, how did we get through that? Then when you think about how you got through that, it’s about this community and all the people I had an opportunity to work with.”

Johnson said that everything that happened that first year still seems a little hard to believe.

“Even now when I tell people that story, people look at you like ‘wow, all of that happened in one year?’ Yes, all of that happened in one year,” said Johnson. “But when you’re in the middle, you don’t think about that, you just do. You just have to keep going, you just have to keep moving forward. And that’s what we did.”


Every kid, every day

During the course of his 12-year tenure as superintendent, it became clear that people were the focus of Johnson. That included staff and administration, but the real focus was on the kids.
Johnson, along with the school board, helped coin the district slogan of “Every kid, every day,” and then he made sure that Monti put it into effect.

As superintendent, he increased class offerings and opportunities for students, especially at the high school level. He saw the beginning of a technology push, and a plan that aims to have a 1:1 student to technology ratio in place for grades six through 12 in the near future.

His focus on the children first became evident when cuts had to be made early in his tenure. Hill in his Aug. 7 comments described Johnson’s approach as peeling an onion. You cut programs by peeling off the outer layers, while keeping the core (kids and academics) as unscathed as possible.

Johnson delivers a presentation prior to the 2015 referendum that passed by a 2-to-1 margin. (File photo)
Johnson delivers a presentation prior to the 2015 referendum that passed by a 2-to-1 margin. (File photo)

“He was about the students of this district, number one. Everything had to be centered on them,” said Hill, pointing to his success in increasing class offerings as one of the most measurable improvements. “He kept class sizes low, and increased class offerings for students at the same time. That tells you a lot about the person you hired.”

Johnson said those opportunities that they provide kids, particularly college-level classes at the high school level, are one of his points of pride when he looks back on his time in the district.
The former superintendent said it allows kids to prepare for, and even get a head start on college, without actually leaving for college.

“They can still have the full high school experience. Which a 17 or 18 year old kid, in my heart, that’s what I believe they should be doing,” he said.

One of the other big points of pride is the nearly finished renovation and update project throughout the school district. The project was made possible by the Monticello community passing a capital bond and operating levy by a 2 to 1 margin – a far cry from the 2006 referendum that failed by nearly that same margin.

“What it told me was what we had done was we had changed the public’s perception of who we were as a school district,” said Johnson. “For whatever reason, there had been a little loss of trust. And I think what we did in 2015 when we went out, was we showed we’d regained the public’s trust.”

Joe Dockendorf, the assistant superintendent to Johnson for the past four years, said it was a treat to be out with Johnson, watching him sell the bond and levy, and more importantly, the district.

“I watched him do a lot of his presentations, and I watched the way the crowd reacted to them,” said Dockendorf. “I saw the way they appreciated the thoughtfulness of the decision making.”
Robbie Smith, a sitting school board member, said at the Aug. 7 board meeting that he noticed a similar reception during Johnson’s 2015 pitches to the community.

“This referendum passed because of you,” Smith said to Johnson. “It’s the commitment you’ve made to this district. I just admired you watching you go out and sell this district to the community – but it was an easy sell because of who you were. They believe in you.”

The upgrades have made the schools more secure, more prepared for the future, and better equipped to make Monticello a strong school district in every facet.
“We’ve really set this district up for the long term in terms of facilities that are going to work for kids and help us grow, and to help us teach kids in a different way than what we were able to before,” said Johnson. “I’m extremely proud of that piece.”

Johnson also points to graduations as an annual highlight of his tenure, including the special opportunity to hand diplomas to each of his four children.

But in the end, he said it was the whole idea of “every kid, every day” that he will walk away taking the most pride in.

“I’m just proud of what our people do every day,” said Johnson. “I think our people have really bought into that [slogan] and we’ve made it our culture.”


Moving on

In his best laid plans, Johnson aimed to be superintendent of Monticello Schools until 2020, when he would then transition to teaching in higher education. But when a position opened up at St. Cloud State University this summer, and it coincided with Johnson starting to feel the wear and tear of a 24 hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year job, he decided the time was right.

“There is never a time that your phone is off, that you aren’t connected. It’s really not an option in this job to be disconnected. After 12 years, it was starting to wear,” said Johnson, adding that opportunities like the one he has at SCSU don’t come around that often. “I think for my family’s sake, and my own sake, when this opportunity came up, it was one I couldn’t pass up.”

Johnson will serve as an associate professor at SCSU, in the educational administration department. He said it’s the type of position that he has long had interest in.

“I really wanted to teach at that next level,” he said. “I wanted to give back, I wanted to use all of the things that I learned over these years, because you learn a lot, and I wanted to be able to share that with that next generation of administrators.”

But that doesn’t mean the decision was easy. Johnson teared up in front of the board on Aug. 7, as he addressed his decision to part ways with the district he had called home for the past 18 years.

“I believe we’re called. And it’s been a privilege to be called to this position,” said Johnson, stating his position as a man of faith. “I’ve been called away, and I believe that. My family knows, more than anybody, how hard this is to go. But they also know, more than anybody, that it’s time to go. We’re still going to be here, and this is still going to be home. This will always be my family.”


Thanks to go around

Johnson is thankful for many from his time in the Monticello Public School District. He lists: Benedetto, who was a mentor to him both before and after he accepted the position; Dockendorf, who started in the district on the same day as Johnson and has been his right hand man the past four years; Tina Burkholder, the director of finance for the district, and Johnson said one of the most solid people for that job that he’s ever seen. And, he added, a lot of school board members who have come and gone during his time as leader of the district.
“I’ve always found them to be supportive,” he said, of all the boards he worked with. “They let me do my job, and they trusted me to do my job.”

And above all else, Johnson gave thanks to the people closest to him.

“I couldn’t do this without my family, especially my wife,” said Johnson. “They’re the ones who truly see the day in and day out stuff of what this job is and the toll that it takes on you. And they’re your support all the way through.”

At the Aug. 7 board meeting, it was the board members’ opportunity to offer their thanks and praise to Johnson, something that each and every one of them took advantage of.
Board member Jill Bartlett focused on who Johnson was as a person.

“You are a man with the highest integrity and the highest character that I’ve met in my life,” said Bartlett, with tears welling in her eyes and the eyes of the superintendent. “The value and respect that I have for you is amazing. And I don’t think I’m alone when I say I’m a better person for knowing you.”

And board member Carol McNaughton added heartfelt praise of her own for the job Johnson did during his 12-year tenure as superintendent.

“I appreciate all that you’ve done for this district, Jim,” said McNaughton. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, thank you, thank you, for putting kids first, for supporting the staff, and making things right in this district. Thank you.”


Retirement Open House Details

The Monticello Public School District is hosting an open house for Dr. Jim Johnson on Monday, August 28, 2017, from 3:30 until 6 p.m. at Little Mountain Elementary School, 9350 Fallon Ave. Refreshments and cake will be served.


Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]