Bismarck’s Model Public Servant

by Jay P. Goldman

When it comes to dealing with hard issues, Paul Johnson isn’t the elusive sort, even though he moves with all deliberate speed.

So whether he’s dealing with proposed closings of elementary schools or a wayward classroom teacher’s use of anti-Semitic propaganda, the superintendent of the Bismarck, N.D., schools prefers a leadership style that he calls “thinking out loud.” Johnson likes to communicate ideas freely in the open environment and to give everyone with a point of view a chance to voice it, especially on complex matters.

This lends an air of transparency and breeds confidence in the superintendent’s management of the 10,600-student school system in the state’s capital city, where he’s been since 2001. The editor of The Bismarck Tribune, the city’s daily newspaper, John Irby, considers Johnson a model government servant in that regard.

“He’s probably one of the easiest public figures to get ahold of if you need anything,” Irby says. “The thing I appreciate about him as much as anything is if he doesn’t agree with an editorial or his board is complaining, he’s very professional about how he approaches you. … If all officials were like him, this would be an easy job.”

The editor had just seen the latest example of Johnson’s measured way of expressing his disagreement. The newspaper had taken a stance opposing the district’s decision to extend its policy governing student participation in activities to the summer — an action prompted by the discovery of varsity athletes posing with beer cans and cigarettes on social networking websites during the school break. The superintendent crafted a straightforward op-ed for the newspaper a few days later.

Johnson, who previously served superintendent stints in the North Dakota districts of Valley City and Nedrose over 11 years, believes decision making in a public school community is well-served by the openness. “How important is this to our success? We almost let public comment exhaust itself before the school district makes a decision,” he says.

When the school board wrestled in his first year with a proposal to close two schools in aging neighborhoods, Johnson hosted a community forum that ensured representation from every school in the district where he laid out the facts about varying costs per pupil and the disparity in class sizes. The board closed one building, and Johnson now uses these representative forums every other year.

More recently, he had to contend with a middle school teacher’s showing of an anti-Semitic video clip downloaded off a website. The incident occurred in mid-week, and a hullabaloo quickly ensued. By the following Monday’s board meeting, Johnson had completed an investigation and disciplined the teacher with a suspension without pay.

“We had a room full of people (at the board meeting),” says Dan Kurtz, the school board president. “Six to eight stood up to speak, and almost all congratulated Dr. Johnson on how it was handled. … It could have blown up, but that was the end of the issue.”

Explains Johnson: “A situation like this has to go right to the top of the list, and you wipe everything off your calendar. … A little luck doesn’t hurt either.”

He was honored for his leadership deeds as one of four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year earlier this year, an affirming experience personally. “Anytime you get recognition, it gives you more confidence,” Johnson says. “All of us question how well we’re doing our jobs — are we on the right track doing the right things? To have a prestigious organization like AASA give you that endorsement is a confidence builder.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator.


Currently: superintendent, Bismarck, N.D.

Previously: principal, South St. Paul, Minn.

Age: 58

Greatest influence on career: My father, a telephone company manager, believed in education, being involved in the community, quality work and continuous improvement. My mother, a choir director, lived all of her life with a physical disability and taught us to be kind and to respect everyone, regardless of physical appearance, as well as not to feel sorry for ourselves.

Best professional day: As principal of a large, urban elementary school in South St. Paul, I watched two of my teachers share, at a school board meeting, the progress our school made in three years in reducing discipline referrals and improving student achievement.

Books at bedside:Balanced Scorecard Step-by-Step: Maximizing Performance and Maintaining Results by Paul Niven; Aligned Thinking: Make Every Moment Count by Jim Steffen; and Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Biggest blooper: Early in my career in a rural district, I encouraged the school board members to attend the state school board convention, something they had not done before. The board president asked me to make the arrangements. When the president, a dairy farmer, returned from the event, I found out he had tried to check in to his motel after 6 p.m., only to find the motel had sold his room because I had not guaranteed it. It took him and his wife several hours to find another room miles from the convention.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: In addition to the quality professional development, excellent magazine and web resources AASA offers, the networking with other superintendents and other education leaders has had a tremendous positive influence.