The Shawnee Mission School District — critical for years in Johnson County’s real estate market and population boom — is looking for a new leader.
Superintendent Gene Johnson, 65, announced Thursday that he will retire in June after 44 years in education.
School board president Patty Mach said the district would hire a consulting firm to conduct a nationwide search for his replacement. The search is expected to begin during the first semester, allowing a successor to be named by spring.
Johnson said his work in Shawnee Mission has been “unbelievably rewarding” but the time is right to let someone else take the lead. His retirement comes as the district prepares to embark on another five-year strategic plan.
“I thought it was really important that whoever the new superintendent is gets to put their signature on that new plan,” he said.
Johnson took over as superintendent in 2008 after working in Shawnee Mission schools since 1986, when he was named principal of Bon Jour Elementary. He had previously worked in Topeka.
Johnson said he has no plans to leave Prairie Village and will continue with board positions for area chambers of commerce and the United Way.
Mach praised Johnson’s work for the district and the community.
“Dr. Johnson is an outstanding professional whose commitment to our students and the community is widely respected. His educational leadership has been marked by a positive attitude reflecting his dedication to putting the best interest of students at the forefront of our decision making,” Mach said in a statement. “Dr. Johnson has had the courage to recommend tough decisions that will allow the Shawnee Mission School District to remain strong.”
The nation’s economic crisis began almost immediately after Johnson took over as superintendent. Shawnee Mission quickly saw state cutbacks in funding, and Johnson responded with cuts that were difficult for many to swallow.
The district closed schools, increased class sizes and cut 400 jobs.
Closing schools generated considerable anger from parents, students and community members who wanted more transparency about the closures from the school district.
“It wasn’t popular, but it was the right thing to do,” he said. “Things have worked out and we’ve made it through some really rough times.”
Johnson said he tried to put history in perspective through it all, pointing out that it was irresponsible not to regularly evaluate efficiencies within the district.
He also led a major overhaul of energy and utility efficiencies intended to save the district millions.
Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg said Johnson’s leadership through adversity will be part of his legacy.
“Gene has the ability to lead through some really difficult decisions always keeping the kids’ best interests in mind,” Trigg said. “It’s been difficult, but I don’t know of anybody who could have led or managed it better.”
Johnson took over after the retirement of Marjorie Kaplan. He was popular among staff members and a key support to Kaplan.
However, patrons will be watching the board’s decision closely after the superintendent selection process in 2008 was criticized for its secrecy. The board held a two-week, “closed meeting” to interview candidates in different places. That was questioned by media law attorneys because the board did not publicize each time it met as a board as typically is required by Kansas law.