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Mayor Thomas M. Menino and City Councilor Charles Yancey (right) joined the cheering at City Hall yesterday as Boston welcomed Carol R. Johnson, the new superintendent of schools.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino and City Councilor Charles Yancey (right) joined the cheering at City Hall yesterday as Boston welcomed Carol R. Johnson, the new superintendent of schools. (Dominic Chavez/ Globe Staff)

Critics of process, backers greet school chief

New superintendent is 'honored' to be in Boston

Newly named school Superintendent Carol R. Johnson made a triumphant first appearance in City Hall yesterday, as the city councilors and community activists who had criticized her selection as too secretive expressed optimism about her potential and vowed to work with her.

Johnson's appointment marked the end of months of uncertainly after the city's previous choice for superintendent took another job in late January and squelched fears of déjà vu when her school board in Memphis made a last-minute appeal for the popular superintendent to stay.

"I never saw a community in a city rally and work so hard to keep a superintendent," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, jokingly referring to the previous night's emotional public appeal at the Memphis school board meeting.

Elizabeth Reilinger, chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, added, "This has been a long time in coming, and many of us have been waiting with bated breath."

Johnson, dressed in a bright red suit and pearls, in contrast to the black she wore when she said farewell to Memphis, assured the crowd of more than 50 people of her intentions. And even her initial detractors seemed swayed by her words.

Parent leaders, city councilors, and the president of the teachers' union who had clamored for public interviews of the finalists promised their full cooperation and tempered their skepticism of earlier in the week. "I'm not happy with the process, but I'm going to do everything I can to help the new superintendent succeed," said Councilor Charles Yancey.

Johnson had turned down Boston last year when the search firm asked her to interview for the job to replace Thomas W. Payzant, who led the city's schools for 11 years. Boston officials had selected Manuel J. Rivera, superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., last fall in a closed process that drew the ire of community members and city councilors. Rivera later backed out.

The Rev. Gregory G. Groover, who led the superintendent search, said that the search committee interviewed a new slate of urban superintendents, whom he referred to as "shining stars," but that Johnson "clearly stood out as a towering figure."

None of the candidates would agree to a public process. Johnson is widely admired in both Memphis and Minneapolis, where she worked for six years, "and when she moves on, she never runs away from any of them," Groover said.

Johnson said Reilinger, Menino, and Groover "spent many hours being persistent and very persuasive" to get her to accept the job.

"I am really honored and delighted to be here today in the birthplace of public education," she said.

Johnson met with community members last night and will meet with others this week, including teachers, students, and parents to hear their concerns about the school system. She also will work with Payzant and Superintendent Michael G. Contompasis, who has been leading the school system for the past year, to understand the city's challenges.

"I expect to hit the ground listening," she said, "and make sure I understand the environment and what is needed."

The soonest Johnson will take the helm would be mid-August, because her contract in Memphis stipulates that she give 60-days' notice. Her contract in Boston is being finalized , and the School Committee plans to approve her appointment along with her contract next Wednesday. She makes $204,516 in Memphis and is expected to make in the mid- to high-$200,000s, Reilinger said.

Caprice Taylor Mendez, director of Boston Parent Organizing Network, said Johnson has been worth the wait. "We know she's someone who at least is alert to the needs of diverse students," she said, "and we're eager to begin to work with her."

At City Hall yesterday, Menino called Johnson "the best match for Boston" because of her record of pushing minority students to achieve and her warmth and openness with parents, teachers, and community members.

"Dr. Johnson is someone who truly gets it," said Menino, who was joined by members of the School Committee, search committee, and City Council yesterday . Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said he will give Johnson the benefit of the doubt despite not having interviewed her. "The process itself was suspect, but it is what it is and it's over," Stutman said.

"We look forward to a new beginning."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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