It was a surprise to many in the school community around the state of Minnesota – much less the city of Monticello – when Dr. Jim Johnson submitted his letter of resignation and retirement to the Monticello School Board early in July.
Johnson, who led the Monticello School District through the course of two decades – including the last 12 as Superintendent, has been an outstanding leader for the community, for more than a few reasons.
I met Jim back in 2007, when I was brand new to the Monticello Times. As editor, I jumped in with both feet as ISD 882 was holding a special election, asking local voters for more dollars to operate schools, and to improve technology and security systems throughout the district.
It wasn’t going to be an easy task for a leader who had been in his position just two years. It wasn’t going to be a tough pill to swallow, either, for a staunchly conservative community that approved a brand new high school and elementary school just a few years earlier, and was skeptical about handing over more of its hard-earned money to local schools.
Johnson was patient. He understood the odds. He noticed the economic landscape was changing. Everyone knew the crisis that could be coming. But he pressed forward, anyway. His kids, he said, around 882 deserved the boost.
The vote prevailed, and since then ISD 882 has emerged from the shadows of some of its neighbors as a district families want to emigrate to for their kids. No one can deny that, for the better part of the 2000s, Monticello schools were the “also-ran” in comparison to booming districts like 885 (STMA) and ISD 728, which had risen to the top of the “big districts” in large part to the success of Rogers High School.
Through the course of that election – Jim earned a fan. In my three plus years at the Times, he had my support. And he still does.
Few, if any districts, can match the success – academically speaking – of STMA. ISD 885 is an example of doing more with less. But 882 rose through the ranks under Johnson’s leadership, with Little Mountain Elementary scoring consistently among the top elementary schools in Minnesota on standardized tests, increased graduation rates at Monticello High School, increased AP classes at the high school and better scoring districtwide.
Johnson, of course, has had a lot of help. Leadership at several schools – including Little Mountain and the high school – has changed. The ISD 882 School Board has become a proponent of change and improvement, and even helped push for improved athletic facilities, a leap many communities aren’t taking due to controversy over funding sports programs. And Johnson has driven the proverbial bus.
It’s important, as Monticello enters an “interim” phase that neighbor Elk River experienced just last year, to continue to press forward. With housing rebounding across Wright County, ISD 882 is going to see exponential growth over the next four years. Yet, with state funds often allocated to “bigger” schools and a need for changing the school funding formula still unmet, Monticello will have to, like its neighbors, continue to do more with less.
The school board faces, in all likelihood, two large decisions over the next 12 months. Who will hold the course? And who will drive ISD 882 into 2020 and beyond?
They could do worse than to model that decision after a man who gave 18 years to Monticello, and made his mark on the educational landscape here over the past decade.
Congrats, Jim. And best of luck at St. Cloud State.