FORT WORTH -- After months of intense criticism from some school board members, Superintendent Melody Johnson abruptly announced Thursday that she is resigning.
Johnson gave trustees a letter of resignation Thursday morning, saying it has been "increasingly difficult to remain effectively focused on the instructional agenda for our students."
She told the Star-Telegram that there isn't any one reason for her resignation but that one factor is her need to spend more time with her mother, who has been ill in recent months.
"You just get to a point where you know deep in your heart that your window to leave is closing," said Johnson, 61. "My family has pretty much gotten the crumbs because my job has always gotten the priority. I don't say that with pride. But education is not just a job. It's a passion."
If the board accepts her resignation, Johnson will step down Sept. 19. She said she will maintain her homes in Fort Worth and San Antonio but intends to spend more time in California with her family.
Although many challenges and controversies arose during her tenure, she said, she feels good about her time in Fort Worth. "It's been a wonderful, wonderful ride," said Johnson, the fourth-highest-paid superintendent in Texas, with a base salary of $328,950.
Board President Ray Dickerson and other trustees have said a national search needs to be conducted to replace Johnson, but some say they already have a replacement in mind: Deputy Superintendent Walter Dansby.
Johnson was hired in 2005 to replace embattled Superintendent Thomas Tocco, who stepped down in 2004 after a $16 million construction billing scandal.
Some trustees credit Johnson for rebuilding public trust, making academic gains and creating innovative programs.
Dickerson said it's unfortunate that some trustees' relentless criticism has created a "hostile work environment" that led to Johnson's departure.
"The constant attacks make it untenable for her to be an effective leader," Dickerson said. "I'm amazed that she's been able to hang in there as long as she has because it's been particularly difficult the last three years."
Three trustees in particular have repeatedly criticized her for limiting information available to them about the district and doing little to improve lagging schools.
One of those, Trustee Ann Sutherland, offered praise for the superintendent, particularly in her handling of difficult budget issues.
"We had differences on policies and other issues, but I know she did her very best and I wish her all the best," Sutherland said. "But I don't believe the board's infighting is a problem. The problem was a difference of focus and concerns of board members on what the real problems of the district are."
Trustee Carlos Vasquez, who has often been critical of the superintendent since he was elected in 2008, said that he is thankful for her service but that it's time for new leadership.
"I think she cares about children as much as we do, but I think this is a win-win for everyone," Vasquez said.
Johnson announced her resignation plans at a principals' meeting Thursday morning. Some staffers left the meeting in tears, calling the news a shock.
During Johnson's first school year in Fort Worth, the overall passing rate for students on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills was 56 percent. In 2010, the passing rate rose to 64 percent.
While the district has touted the improvements, other urban districts have maintained higher passing rates.
The Houston school district, which is more than twice the size of Fort Worth, also had a 56 percent passing rate on the TAKS in 2006, but it improved to 72 percent in 2010. The Austin and Dallas school districts also had higher passing rates than Fort Worth in 2010.
Administrators have hinted that they could see a drop in the next round of accountability ratings, which are based largely on TAKS scores.
"The TAKS scores are probably weighing heavily on her mind," said Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association.
Johnson acknowledged that more work is needed in the classroom, particularly on the east side of the district, where some high schools rank among the lowest in the state in academics. But she stressed that the district has been working on long-term, sustainable solutions rather than quick fixes.
"There are no excuses," she said. "Of course all these things are unacceptable. But it's just about everyone rolling up their sleeves, doing the right thing and giving teachers the training and time to get students to where they need to be."
Supporters say examples of what is working include her revamping the high schools to offer career-focused programs, the opening of an all-girls school and a program that brought additional resources to some of Fort Worth's most struggling schools.
Paula Batts, a longtime parent volunteer, said she was "horrified and deeply saddened" by the news.
"It's a huge loss for Fort Worth," Batts said. "My kids have received a quality education under her leadership."
Johnson also had support from the business community, which praised her for forging partnerships.
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.
"I'm saddened," Trustee Norm Robbins said. "I was hoping we could get 10 years out of her."
Shaw noted that Johnson's term was about twice the average stay for a superintendent.
One of Johnson's biggest achievements was getting voter approval of the $593.6 million bond package in 2007. After the construction scandal under Tocco, in which two men were convicted of defrauding the school district and sentenced to prison terms, one of the main concerns was "restoring the public trust."
Trustees and others insist that she has done that, saying the bond package has been on time and under budget.
There have been questions, however. The bond package that was put before voters included the installation of fire sprinklers at every school that did not have them. But district officials later decided not to spend $19.3 million on the sprinklers, saying they would have to be installed along walls or would hang low, putting them within reach of students.
Johnson said district officials never specifically said they would install the fire sprinklers, instead promising to address fire safety needs in general.
And while she has been praised for helping the district land federal grants and private dollars, the spending of that money has sometimes been questioned.
In 2009, the Star-Telegram reported that 20 Fort Worth schools spent nearly $700,000 in federal tax dollars on overnight staff retreats, some at luxury hotels and posh resorts in North Texas, even though state officials warned that staying at such places can appear excessive.
Johnson responded by implementing a list of available facilities in Fort Worth for future off-campus retreats, telling the Star-Telegram that "I do recognize that we must be far more sensitive to the public and our taxpayers during these economic times."
Outside the classroom, some teachers and other employees complained that the district launched a new payroll system in 2009 without proper training and testing, resulting in numerous problems -- including the overpayment of at least $1.54 million to some employees and former employees. An internal audit found that the payroll system lacked proper controls, was cumbersome and inconsistent, and included manual paper entries that led to human errors.
This school year, problems with a new student-data management system brought new criticism of how Johnson's administration implemented the programs.
At the same time, the district has been wrought by a series of controversies. At the center of much of the discord were concerns about Arlington Heights High School, where an internal investigation uncovered various wrongdoings, including improper attendance record-keeping and the disproportionate disciplinary treatment of minority students. The federal Office of Civil Rights is investigating the discipline matter.
Johnson has also been criticized by some in the minority community.
The Rev. Kyev Tatum, a vocal critic of Johnson's who asked for the federal investigation at Heights, said: "She failed because kids are failing. The issue is never the fact that we had problems within the district. We all knew that, but how one goes about solving those problems, that was ultimately her downfall."
While Johnson plans to remain until Sept. 19, Dansby, who has been with the district 37 years, is already gaining support to be the interim -- or full-time -- superintendent. Dansby declined to comment Thursday.
Vasquez said the district doesn't need to spend money on a national search when it has a "jewel" in Dansby, citing his experience in Fort Worth from teacher and coach to principal and central administrator.
Staff writer Shirley Jinkins contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700