FORT WORTH -- Melody Johnson is stepping down as superintendent of Fort Worth schools, she told principals Thursday in a surprise announcement.
In a letter given to board members Thursday morning, Johnson wrote: "It has been my great privilege to provide leadership to the 12,000 employees, our 81,000 students, their families and this great community. For 36 years I have been involved in unifying educators and working side-by-side with them to ensure the best for students.
"In recent months however, it has been increasingly difficult to remain effectively focused on the instructional agenda for our students."
If the letter of resignation is accepted by the school board, Johnson would step down on Sept. 19.
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She has led the district for six years, and some trustees credit her with academic gains throughout the district and with creating innovative programs, such as revamped, career-focused high school programs, an all-girls school and the PEAK program that brought additional resources to some of Fort Worth's most struggling schools.
Johnson also had support from the business community, which praised her for forging partnerships.
But three trustees have repeatedly criticized her for limiting information available to them about the district and doing little to improve lagging schools.
Some in the minority community have taken issue with her, particularly after a move to put an all-boys school at the Dunbar 6th Grade Center with no input from the Stop Six community.
Fort Worth student test scores, while improving, were still lower than their peers across the state. For example, Fort Worth's overall passing rates for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in 2010 was 64 percent, an improvement over 56 percent in 2006, Johnson's first year as superintendent.
The Houston school district also had a 56 percent passing rate in 2006, but it improved to 72 percent in 2010. The Austin and Dallas school districts also have higher passing rates.
Outside the classroom, teachers and other employees complained that the district launched a new payroll system and a new student data management system without proper training and testing, resulting in numerous problems.
In the last year, the district has been plagued by a series of struggles and controversies. At the center of much of the discord were concerns about Arlington Heights High School.
Those concerns sparked an internal district investigation that uncovered various mismanagement and wrongdoings, including improper attendance record keeping and the disproportionate treatment of minority students in discipline.
The controversy split the board and further divided some trustees from Johnson.
Still, last year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranked Fort Worth one of the top cities for education reform, noting that Johnson had been aggressive in using data to make real-time adjustments to programs and policies. However, the institute also noted that she was risk-averse.
Johnson is the fourth highest paid superintendent in Texas, with a base salary of $328,950, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. Her contract also allows her to receive an annual car allowance of $7,200 and an annual performance bonus to buy retirement credits.
She can resign from the district at the end of a school year without penalty, according to her contract.
Johnson came to the district from Providence, R.I., where she had led schools there since 2002. Before that, she was an administrator in San Antonio and had worked as senior director for middle school education at the Texas Education Agency.
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700