School chief's Boston debut followed by Tenn. probe

Johnson's former system is target of investigations

Email|Print| Text size + By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / January 27, 2008

For the past four months, Boston's new school superintendent has agreed to meet with virtually every activist, public official, and parent who asks. She spent two recent Saturdays holed away in a conference room trying to cut millions out of the budget. Recently, the mayor gave her new orders: Get more students into college-level courses, and while you're at it, redesign the system's controversial busing plan.

But as Carol Johnson adjusts to a new life in a new city with a powerful new job, her past won't get out of the way. Weeks after she left her job running the Memphis public schools to come to Boston, her old system became the target of multiple investigations pointing to widespread mismanagement, shoddy oversight, and alleged corruption.

The FBI is investigating how school construction contracts were awarded. A federal grand jury indicted a former county commissioner on extortion charges. The Tennessee comptroller's office last week began probing millions of dollars of waste in the district's food services division. And school district officials are examining the awarding of lucrative school bus contracts without bids - even after an internal audit found a bus company had overbilled the district by half a million dollars, charging the school system for routes it never ran.

It remains unclear what roles, if any, Johnson played in the Memphis scandals and mismanagement. Johnson says she is not the target of the FBI investigation and that the probe is focused on elected leaders.

"Of course I am deeply disappointed and sad to hear that some of the things that have happened in Memphis have taken the focus off what's happening in the classroom," Johnson said after a recent School Committee meeting. "I was not aware of any of the corruption issues that are coming out now."

The FBI contacted the Memphis superintendent's office after her departure as a routine part of its investigation, she said, and the agency has access to her old e-mails and calendar.

"I do know people who have talked to the FBI within the school district, and I have certainly said if they needed any information from me that they could contact me," she said in a later phone interview.

Asked whether she has been interviewed by the FBI, Johnson cut the telephone conversation short and said her ride home from work was waiting. Later, her spokesman said Johnson had been contacted by the US Attorney's office in Memphis to help with background information.

The recent disclosures have raised questions over whether Johnson, set to deliver a major policy address this week, is distracted in the critical first months of her new job. Boston school officials said they had no inkling of the troubles before they recruited Johnson.

"We were relying on information from the search firm and the search firm never reported any concerns to us," said the Rev. Gregory Groover, the Boston School Committee vice chairman who helped bring Johnson to Boston.

While Johnson won praise for boosting academic performance during her four-year tenure as Memphis superintendent, she was criticized for her weak management skills and lack of oversight into the operations of that 115,000-student school system. The school system had gone for three years without a chief financial officer, and Johnson tended to promote administrators she deemed loyal, rather than those with demonstrated skills and experience, said former and current school board members.

The man Johnson had put in charge of school system operations in Memphis for the last year and a half of her tenure there joined her in Boston last month to serve as her special assistant, at an annual salary of $167,000. Johnson's hiring of Michael Goar raises concerns as to how much responsibility he will eventually have in Boston, especially because the district's current chief operating officer is in the running for superintendent of Madison, Wis., schools.

The investigation in Memphis is unfolding as Johnson confronts a critical challenge in her new job. Boston faces a projected $12.8 million deficit in its more than $818.5 million budget, which included federal money, amid a steady decline in enrollment combined with increased spending to expand preschools and shrink class sizes.

Johnson, who was named superintendent in June after a tumultuous 18-month national search, is expected to unveil her plans and budget recommendations for the school system Wednesday.

In Memphis, some school board members and a professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis say that the responsibility for how the district functioned ultimately lies at the top, with Johnson and Goar.

"The implosion that we're in the midst of would not be occurring had it not been for their oversight, or lack of oversight," said school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., adding that Johnson's forte was in instructional leadership, not business management.

But other board members supported Johnson, saying the Memphis system was already in financial disarray when she took the job in 2003 and was beginning to tighten its operations when she decided to leave.

"We've had problems with purchasing, transportation, maintenance, and facilities," said school board member Jeff Warren. "It's not like she caused these things to happen. But she didn't get them fixed.

"We paid the price for really wanting the academic gains that she was bringing," Warren said. "We knew her weakness was in operations."

Johnson defended her record, pointing to the $77 million in cuts she made over her four years in Memphis.

"I didn't leave them in a deficit. I did work I am proud of," she said. "We're not a perfect organization. I'm not a perfect person."

Civic leaders in Boston were quick to back Johnson, saying that the FBI investigation has not seemed to distract her from her new job. Already Johnson has built a base of support among students, parents, business and community leaders, even the president of the teachers union.

"I don't think we should be worried at all about what happened in Memphis," Groover said. "I'm just very confident that Dr. Johnson will take the Boston Public Schools to the next level."

At the center of the FBI probe is a former county commissioner who was indicted in November. The commissioner allegedly claimed to control the votes of the Memphis school board through campaign contributions, and accepted more than $263,000 from a construction company to help it win a $46.7 million school construction contract for three schools, according to the indictment.

School board members said the company ultimately was awarded the contract because it was the lowest bidder. A board subcommittee on capital improvements received the recommendation from Johnson, who had approved the recommendation made by a group of school system administrators.

As the federal investigation continues, the state comptroller plans to audit the school system's central nutrition services, after a school system audit revealed more than $3 million in inappropriate spending by its director.

"I, of course, deeply care about Memphis," Johnson said. "I do hope things work out there."

It is unclear what roles, if any, Carol Johnson played in the Memphis scandals and mismanagement. She says she is not the target of the FBI investigation.


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