Don Johnson to Retire

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger
Don Johnson has been at the helm of the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District for nearly nine years.

The world was a very different place in 2007.

George W. Bush was still president of the United States. Jim Doyle was the governor of Wisconsin. A little social networking service called “Twitter” had just been launched. Donald Trump was merely a reality TV star.

And here in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, a man named Don Johnson was starting his new job as superintendent.

Now, after a wild ride that included a litany of ups and downs, that soft spoken but unflappable man has announced that after nine years as the top administrator, he plans to retire this summer.

Johnson, who broke the news of his decision to his wife at a dinner celebrating his 59th birthday, weathered the dismantling of Wisconsin’s teachers unions, drastic changes to school funding, and a long-running legal dispute with the Middleton Education Association. He also presided over the district during a time of almost unprecedented accomplishments for the thousands of students who spent their most formative years here. Local students, and their teachers, in Middleton-Cross Plains have wracked up countless awards and honors, acing a long list of tests and going on to make their marks in the greater world.

Through it all, Johnson — whose interests outside of work include eastern philosophy, traveling, and photography — says he tried to maintain a touch of healthy stoicism.

“[Retiring] was a difficult decision to make,” Johnson said. “But I feel good about it.”

He added that he hopes his last day will be sometime in late June, but he is willing to stay until the school board has a suitable replacement ready to step in.

Looking back as he prepares to ride off into the sunset, Johnson said the school district’s many successes are something for the entire community to be proud of.

“We’ve, I think, developed a school district and community where people are proud of the success our kids have had,” he said on Monday of this week.

He heaped praise on teachers, students, the bodies of municipal government that exists within the district, and the chamber of commerce.

“I guess the thing I’m most proud of is the way we’ve coalesced around the fact that the business community, government, and the schools are all on the same page,” he continued. “We can excel beyond our neighbors because we collaborate, coordinate, and understand that what is good for one of us is good for all of us.”

He said the district’s many awards and academic distinctions should be acknowledged with a touch of humility, however.

“We want to be incredible but not arrogant,” Johnson said. “We’re all struggling to gain the same things.”

Johnson said the district has implemented “massive” improvements to its curriculum and instruction during his time here. He added that he hopes local educators today have more structure, but also more flexibility within that structure, than they did when he arrived.

“We have an incredibly strong game plan to educate our children,” Johnson said. “But people are able to improvise within the plan.”

He said Middleton-Cross Plains is a place where families, kids, and teachers want to “do everything well.”

While the district is indubitably the envy of many in the state, it has not been free from controversy in recent years.

Johnson was a few years into his time here when, in 2011, Republican lawmakers and Governor Scott Walker implemented sweeping changes, including Act 10, to dismantle public employee unions and change the way schools are funded. Today, significantly more tax dollars are funneled to private schools while public institutions say they are chronically underfunded.

“I think of it in two pieces,” said Johnson. “The first is Act 10, which shifted us away from the much more powerful unions that we had. Then, there are the budget changes that took place simultaneously but were different legislative actions.”

Johnson, who tended to select his words carefully during his time here, was more candid when he spoke about such issues this week.

“[Act 10] certainly weakened teachers unions and has been problematic in that teachers don’t have the voice they once had,” he stated. “But I would also say that districts that have flourished since then have been the ones that have really embraced their teaching staff. The ones who tried to use it as a power play paid a price.”

“It was a big shift, and different districts handled it differently,” he added.

While Johnson said working with teachers was a vital part of thriving in the post-Act 10 world, he is no stranger to labor conflict.

In 2009, a Glacier Creek Middle School teacher was fired after the district discovered nude images and other graphic content that he had accessed using a school computer. The Middleton Education Association, the local teachers union, fought back - taking the case to arbitration and subsequently the courts.

In the end, the union, arguing that the punishment was excessive, won, and the teacher was reinstated.

For a school board and superintendent that spent several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting for the right to fire him, the defeat stung.

Johnson admitted as much this week, but he went on to say the conflict did bring an important issue to light. He also pointed out that the case, in part, prompted a bipartisan measure  by state lawmakers that made it easier to fire teachers for viewing pornographic material. He said the legal battle helped expose “an imbalance” in the system.

“We did lose, but I think it showed how the [union] had overplayed their hand,” Johnson said. “I think the … case was a good example of where people lost faith in the system.”

“I think of that as one of the most difficult single issues,” he said. “I admit we, the district, didn’t prevail. But we did the right thing.”

As he prepares to put the various ups and downs of the job behind him, Johnson said he plans to focus on several things that his busy work schedule would never afford.

“I think I haven’t carved out enough time to do the writing I want to do,” Johnson said. “Possibly about education, yes, but also about philosophy and the environment.”

He hopes to spend more time “thinking, writing, and maybe advocating.”

Johnson hopes to spend time honing his photography skills, as well as being physically active and perhaps engaging in outdoor leadership training.

“I really believe a disconnect with nature and the outdoors is problematic for our culture,” he mused.

And Johnson, who says he decided to become an educator at the age of 20, wants to “travel with purpose and engage with the world more.”

He’s not sure where exactly that will take him. But then again, he had no idea where his job running the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District would lead him.

And that’s fine by him.

“I’m one of those people; I like a challenge,” he said. “I guess you could say I’m not comfortable unless I’m a little bit uncomfortable.”


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