Schools looked a little different when Timm Johnson was first elected to the Osceola school board.
It was 1983, the year Microsoft launched Word. The internet? That wouldn’t come to classrooms for a decade. Between classes, students might’ve been talking about movies like “Flashdance,” or “Return of the Jedi,” or a hit new video game called Mario Brothers.
Thirty-six years later, having seen the district through changes technological, economic and educational, Johnson is in his first months away from the school board. He opted not run for reelection last spring, saying it was time to let new leadership take more responsibility.
“I thought after 36 years it was time to let somebody else have the chance,” Johnson said in late April. “It’s been a great experience. It’s been very positive and I’m very appreciative of the opportunity.
And although a lot has changed over the decades, some things haven’t. Three core principals have guided the board throughout his tenure, Johnson reported.
First, the success of any entity starts at the top. The more positive, forward thinking and progressive the leadership, the less need for micromanagement.
“This allows administrators to do their job, which allows teachers to do their job,” said Johnson. “Ultimately it shows up in the classroom.”
Second, the school must think and act like a business. Yes, the school has a $19 million budget with 275 employees. Beyond that, though, Johnson views the school as serving customers.
“There are two types of customers,” he said. “The 1,700 students who walk in the door and the community. So how do you deliver value to your customers?”
Academically, the district works to prepare students to enter a workforce with global competition. Johnson believes it’s succeeding. The school’s test scores are top in the 31-school CESA district and in the top 5 percent in the state. It is one of 72 schools in the U.S. and Canada on the AP honor roll, for success in advanced placement classes.
“We currently have two students at MIT, recent graduates at Stanford and West Point,” he said. “Several hundred students have gone to Heifer International in Arkansas to experience what life is like in the third world. That’s led to the Empty Bowls program, which touches on world hunger. … We’re preparing our students not only academically but to be global citizens in the 21st century.”
What’s the value to the community?
The school’s taxation rate is below the state average and most spending goes to salaries, meaning it has a direct impact on educating and supporting students.
The school has tracked electricity use since 2004, reducing use from 3.2 million kilowatts to 2.6 million. And it’s reduced water use by more than 100,000 gallons per year.
“We’re actually able to track how much it costs per hour to have the lights on at the football field,” he said. “Most people would be surprised. It’s less than $4 an hour over the course of the year.”
“From a community perspective, we have academic success but we do it in a fiscally responsible fashion,” Johnson concluded.
Coming back to that list of unchanging principles, the third and final point: “Everything operates within a system,” Johnson said. “And if the system is flawed, you’re doomed to fail.”
When the school developed its strategic plan, leadership used a method based on W. Edwards Deming’s model of quality management. A school using this systems-based approach is something of an anomaly.
“Most schools don’t think in the same term,” Johnson said. “We think of it as, the culture starts at the top. … Success comes because of the culture that has been created, then empowering employees within that system and promoting from within.”
Thoughts on the referendum
“It was obviously disappointing that it didn’t pass,” Johnson said of the levy request voters rejected in the April 2 election. “Someone needs to explain to me why we’re getting resistance. We’re a low spending district with a low tax rate. I totally understand people’s reluctance to pay property taxes. But it’s hard for me to comprehend when you look at the per capita income in Osceola versus other schools.”
Johnson cited Frederic and Luck, which have triple the number of students on free or reduced lunch, yet passed a levy-cap override.
“Somehow there’s a disconnect between a really good quality school and the willingness to support it,” he said. “The community has always been really supportive, but these last two referendums failed and we really needed them. A lot of the costs will be passed on to students.”
Moreover, Johnson sees a district getting by when it could have been leading the way.
“Before Act 10 we had four Spanish teachers,” he said. “Our goal was to have students conversationally bilingual by eighth grade, then we would expose them to another world language like German or Mandarin Chinese, preparing students for a global world.
“We were also ready to create an environmental learning center, where fourth grade students would be outdoors every day exploring and documenting. They would record what the weather is, they would follow how plants were changing and track bird migration. …
“Because of Act 10 and budget cuts we were never able to go that far, but that was part of being a really progressive school.”
Now, Johnson leaves planning the district future to others.
He took his place at the board’s meeting table in April for the last time. He recollected his time on the board, specifically the 4,500 diplomas he handed out and thanked board members and staff for the work they do for the district.
“I have faith in you guys,” he said. “Do the best you can do. It has been a pleasure and a privilege serving our district these past 36 years.”
The board applauded Johnson’s career and took turns expressing their gratitude. “You have seen us through five major projects and we will miss your leadership,” said board member Pete Kammerud.
Superintendent Mark Luebker concluded, “We all appreciate your leadership and dedication. We wish to honor you and Helen with lifetime passes to Chieftain sporting events.”
Next up for Johnson: more time with his grandsons, 13 and 8, who live in San Diego.
All in all, he reported, it’s been a good run.
“My time on the school board was 99 percent positive,” he said. “It’s been a really rewarding experience.”
Mara Martinson contributed reporting for this article.