Q&A with Sara E. Johnson
Since 2016, Sara E. Johnson has been the Director of Assessment, Equity and School Improvement for the Klamath County School District in Klamath Falls with about 6,500 students. Before, she was superintendent for the Sumner School District in Sumner, Washington, with a student enrollment of about 9,500 for three years.
Other administrative experience includes four years as assistant superintendent at Lincoln County School District in Newport with 5,200 students. Johnson was named Oregon Principal of the Year in 2007.
She has a Doctorate Degree in educational leadership from George Fox University and a master's degree in teaching education from Eastern Oregon University.
Johnson, age 56, was raised in Burns and lives in Klamath Falls with her husband, Tom Johnson. He was also an educator and retired as vice principal from Burns High School. They have two adult children, who are both registered nurses. Her son lives in Eugene, and her daughter, son-in-law, and 2-year-old grandbaby live in Klamath Falls.
What are your priorities in running a school district?
I believe that good school districts are built on relationships first. Secondly, pedagogy – good instructional practices and good curriculum. I really believe in using a multi-tiered system of support so that you have all of the pieces in place in your district to serve all of the kids. If we really mean all, all means all, then we build the resources to serve every student that we have in our system.
Is your financial philosophy conservative or is it more progressive?
We are expected in education to do a lot with the money that we are given. It has to be conservative in Oregon. If you really want to get done the work that needs done in school districts, you have to be very careful and intentional about your spending, and it has to be focused on the needs, and you have to make priorities. People know that Crook County School District has done a good job at getting their system solid. You hear people say that they were conservative, so I believe if you're going to be superintendent in this district, you need to be conservative.
What are your goals for this district?
My goals would be in alignment with the administrators and the school board to serve all of our kids at a high level and to ensure that we have high student outcomes. The district is in good shape, and so we would like to take it to the next level, and so that would be my goal: figure out exactly what that next level would be defined as and to work collaboratively with the people here to take the district to that.
Is there something you would want to tackle first — some issue or something that would be your first goal?
It's wise for a superintendent to come in and build relationships and learn about the district. You need to spend a good amount of time really learning, so that you don't take the district in a direction that would not be best for the district. To look at what's already in place and to ensure that I'm listening and learning and seeking to understand so that we can really narrow down to the next steps. There are people here who have already established that work, and honoring and seeing what we can do in the next step would be important, just to work with people and listen to people in doing that.
What is your leadership style?
I'm servant leadership and collaborative. I believe in the district office being the service center for the schools and the administrators to be serving the teachers, and the teachers serve the students, we all serve the families. A collaborative servant leadership model is what I really adhere to. That's been refined over the years. You really need to be working with the whole team in order to produce the best and the most.
How has your career history led you to wanting to be a superintendent?
There's people who are really servant-based and service-based, and then there are people who are place-based. I started out really being place-based. My husband and I were in Burns for 22 years, and I had spent years there growing up, so 35 years of my life have been spent in Burns. After I'd been a teacher and a principal, I ended up applying for a principal job in McMinnville School District and actually got that job and was in McMinnville for six years and had some good success there with my team. Then, I was approached by Lincoln County School District, and I joined Lincoln County School District as human resources and then assistant superintendent. After that, I really started looking at the superintendent's role, realizing that there's a great deal of impact when you can get into the leadership role where you are really out there in front with your staff. So I went up to Sumner School District in Washington for three years as superintendent, and then I made a transition down to Klamath Falls. That was a period in time when my mom was entering the last stages of her life, and I spent two years down there. I've been there two years, and my grandbaby was born. The superintendent in Klamath is retiring, and I decided everything is stabilized, and now would be the time for me to go back into that role. I love the eastern side of Oregon. That's home to me. An opportunity at Crook County was a great opportunity — an amazing opportunity. So I threw my hat in.
What is one of the biggest challenges that you've face in your career and you've been able to overcome?
This is a people business — a people-based business. It's a challenge to take the resources you have and build a system that gets standardized student achievement improvements but also serves the whole child. That's kind of a cliché term, but when I'm talking about that, I'm talking about the complexity of a human being and what they need in order to grow and flourish. I'm not thinking of one specific challenge, but I think across time, just working in systems to build amazing systems with the people that you have around you, that's always a challenge and an important work and urgent work. There's been so many challenges in funding, and our culture continues to evolve and morph and change, so keeping your system fresh and keeping it responsive takes fulltime work.
What excites you about Prineville?
Why did you want to come to the Crook County School District? I suppose it's selfish, but it's always been my belief that this area of Oregon is the ideal place to be, and it's such a great surprise and a wonderful opportunity that Crook County opened up and that I was able to apply here. An exciting thing is it's a great size of community. The school district is the right size to really have that personal connection with each person that works in the district to be able to have those community connections. It's rural, but it's accessible. It's a really good spot.
Why do you think the school board should hire you? Why do you think you're a good fit for the job?
The school board has a really big responsibility when they select a superintendent. It's the one person in the district that they hire, and they're being very careful in their process to make sure that they have someone that can take them to the next level that they're seeking. I believe that given my experience, given my education, given my journey, that I have the skills, and I have the characteristics that would combine with what's already going on in Crook County that we could reach that next level. Duane has done really great work here. The school board has really done great work, and they're ready to move on to the next level, and I believe that I have the toolset that they would need to move to the next level.