Colleagues praise Johnson’s leadership of SMSD in the face of tough budgets

Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Gene Johnson formally announced his retirement Thursday.

“I haven’t had a bad year, ever,” Dr. Gene Johnson said of his 44 years in education shortly after his retirement was announced Thursday.

Johnson, who will turn 66 in January, said the timing of his announcement had more to do with the fact that the current five-year cycle of strategic planning in the district is coming to an end and “the person coming in needs to provide their direction” for the next plan. Johnson has spent 26 years in the Shawnee Mission district and was named superintendent in 2008.

The hardest part of his five years helming the district, Johnson said, was the financial challenges that led to $25 million in cuts from the operating budget and reducing staff by 400 members. In one year, the district made a cut of $13 million, a move it could not survive today, Johnson said. Johnson presided over several school closings during his tenure, some of which proved quite controversial, including Mission Valley Middle School.

SM East-area board representative Donna Bysfield, praising Johnson’s tenure, said, “It has been a tough five years” for the district. Johnson was a known entity to the community and staff when he assumed the helm so it was an easy transition, she said. “Change is hard,” but Bysfield says the story of Shawnee Mission is that the district will be fine.

Joan Leavens, who was elected to the school board in the wake of the Mission Valley closing, said she found Johnson to be a great — and approachable — resource as she learned the ins-and-outs of her new position.

“As a new board member, I’ve appreciated his hands-on leadership and willingness to both listen and mentor,” she said. “He takes a personal interest in students and staff members at every level.”

SM East Principal Dr. Karl Krawitz said it was Johnson’s “leadership that stood out above everything else. He will be tough to replace. The district is excelling at the highest levels it’s ever been. I think that says something about his leadership (through the financial challenges).” He has “stood the test,” Krawitz said, keeping the district focused on what it does best during the financial crisis. “He is very poised,” Krawitz said. “He doesn’t get caught up in the emotion of the circumstances.”

Johnson also said that in spite of the financial hardships, student achievement is still high. “The staff and community have done a great job. That’s important.”

“There is a lot more diversity in the district now. It was important to me that each student had a fair opportunity – not equal, but fair. One student may need a few more resources than another.” Johnson said he is “proud” the district has been able to prepare kids for the next step in life, year after year — it is the culture inside Shawnee Mission that expects successful students.

After retirement, Johnson plans to remain in Prairie Village and continue with his extensive community involvement.