IPS board votes unanimously to hire Johnson as superintendent

The Indianapolis Public Schools board unanimously voted to approve Aleesia Johnson as superintendent of the state’s largest school district Thursday. The agreement officially concludes a six-month search during which Johnson was both the interim leader of the district and the favorite candidate to take the helm.

Johnson was chosen as superintendent in June, but the board held a public hearing and publicized her contract before approving the final agreement. Johnson, 41, will be paid about $250,000 next year and receive the same retirement and health insurance benefits as other administrators.

Ahead of the vote on the contract, school board member Diane Arnold shared several of the reasons why she believes Johnson will be a strong superintendent, including Johnson’s commitment to racial equity, interpersonal skills, and support for improving district communication.

“Aleesia does not make excuses or blame others for issues in the district,” Arnold said. “She will not accept the status quo, and even when change is painful, I believe she will push forward to ensure that the best educational opportunities are provided for all of our students.”

A native of Evansville, Johnson was chosen from among three finalists who interviewed publicly for the superintendent position. She had a background in charter schools before joining Indianapolis Public Schools four years ago to oversee the new innovation school strategy, which hands struggling campuses to outside managers and pulls existing charter schools into a district network. She was promoted last year to deputy superintendent.

Johnson is well-liked among local leaders and powerbrokers. But because of her close association with her predecessor, former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and the controversial innovation program, her selection faced some opposition. Critics of innovation schools and other recent changes in the district argued she was not experienced enough for the job. At the same time, supportive parents at board meetings highlighted her experience in the city and the district.

By choosing Johnson, the board signaled a willingness to continue down the path laid by Ferebee. That includes not only a new approach to working with charter schools but also an overhaul of the district’s high schools.

The cash-strapped district is at the beginning of a multiyear financial overhaul. Indianapolis Public Schools recently won a significant influx of money from taxpayers through a referendum, but to gain the support of the influential business community, district leaders pledged to remake the school system’s budget. The aim is to radically cut spending on areas such as transportation and facilities — likely by closing schools — in order to shift more money to teachers and other staff pay.

Johnson’s pay includes a salary of $238,000 in her first year and a $1,000 monthly car allowance. The contract will run through June 30, 2022, and it will automatically renew for one year if the board evaluates Johnson as effective or highly effective.