Johnson anxious to become Wildcat

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

New Cassville superintendent leans on St. James experience

Cassville’s incoming Superintendent Merlyn Johnson still has more than three months before his duties begin, but he is already anxious to become a Wildcat.

Johnson

The current superintendent of the St. James school district said he’s setting his goals for his new post, starting with getting to know the district’s staff and the community.

“I’m excited to get started, and my family is excited,” he said. “We’ve already sold our house in St. James and have to be out by late May. We haven’t found a place in Cassville yet, but we are looking. Whenever you move to a new community, you are at the mercy of whomever wants to help you, and we’ve only known I got the job for about a week, so we’re working on it.”

Johnson is a graduate of Williams Baptist University and has a doctorate in educational administration from Lindenwood University. His first teaching opportunity was at a max security prison in Newport, Ark. He then spent a dozen years teaching social studies and coaching baseball at North Pemiscot and Poplar Bluff before going to Clarkton, where he moved into the high school principal role.

“I enjoyed the classroom setting, but I took that [administrative] position on and never looked back,” he said.

Johnson then went to Summersville, where he was high school principal for one year before moving into the superintendent position.

“I spent six years there and enjoyed being superintendent,” he said. “I grew a lot professionally and personally over that time. Summersville is a very small district, but I felt like I accomplished a lot.”

Johnson then took the superintendent role at St. James, where he has spent the last five years.

“It was a great fit for me at a bigger district,” he said. “I was contacted about the Cassville position opening up, and I was shocked [current Superintendent] Richard [Asbill] was leaving for Bolivar because everyone knows him as Mr. Cassville.

“Some may look at this and say it’s a lateral move, but there are some great things going on at Cassville, and I am just ending some projects at St. James, so I’m am excited for something new.”

St. James is in the punch list phase of a $12 million bond project that, with about another $3 million in general funds added, built the district a new early childhood center, renovated its 1923 high school building and repurposed an old gymnasium into a performing arts center. Johnson’s project experience was a key to his hiring by the Cassville Board of Education, according to President Becky Henningson.

“I think I could bring a lot of knowledge and experience to Cassville with what I’v been through at St. James,” Johnson said. “When you go through a big building project, it never flows exactly as you want, but people are excited about the finished product.”

Another reason for Johnson’s move is his family, as his daughter is attending Missouri State University.

“Cassville is a little closer to Springfield than St. James,” he said. “Obviously, we know she won’t be there forever, but it will be nice for her to only have to go one hour to come home instead of two.”

Johnson said upon arrival, he hopes to engage the district staff and the community like he has at previous posts.

“I want open communication and constant communication,” he said. “I like to use the term ‘ad nauseum.’ I want to go to the local restaurants and have coffee with people and ask them what’s on their minds, what their concerns are and answer any questions. I also use that as an opportunity to brag on our schools and teachers.

“We have to tell our story, because if we don’t, someone else will. At the same time, I have to do my job as superintendent and make sure the teachers and staff are supported with the resources they need.”

Johnson said his approach to communication is backed up by the St. James bond issue, which got 73 percent approval from voters.

“We did public forums and communicated information through the newspapers, social media and our director of communication,” he said. I also communicated frequently with the ministerial alliance to talk to their congregations about it. St. James did not have a ministerial alliance when I started, and I challenged the local pastors to get together at least quarterly. I think that really had a great effect.”

Johnson said his approach to management is to be personable and to keep his ears open.

“You have to be a real person,” he said. “It helps to know stuff, but it’s really about treating people right, being transparent and being honest. The first thing I will have to do is learn the people and the culture, and I want to meet everyone employed within a few weeks of starting and have a real conversation with each of them.

“I also want to meet the local business leaders and stakeholders, and to let everyone know I’m just a regular person.”

Johnson said part of that is wearing many hats.

“I have a CDL license and have driven buses, and my dad was a custodian,” he said. “I have worked food service in the past, though not in a school, but I hope all that helps me relate to people.

“I plan to lean in and listen to people before talking, learn about them and let that digest, then start to set my goals.”

Johnson has come to Cassville before, as the Wildcats played St. James in football for two years.

“We had a pretty good football team for our standards, but our tradition isn’t as strong as Cassville’s,” he said. “In 2016, our athletic director was not able to go to the Cassville game, so I was the supervising administrator. When I got there, Cassville had been dealing with some flooding, and I met Richard as he was helping get the field ready. He gave me a tour of the field house and the press box, and I actually used Cassville’s press box plans to help build a new press box in St. James.

“That was when my relationship with Richard really took off, both as a professional colleague and a friend. Ultimately, I think all that helped me become a front-runner for the job.”

In his application bid, Johnson cited his professional beliefs as building caring relationships, fostering academic excellence and building community partnerships. He values a collaborative culture and aims to lead by example.

He is an adjunct professor with Lindenwood University, a member of the Missouri Association of School Administrators (South Central president and on the Constitution Committee), Missouri Association of Rural Education, State Beta Club Council, and the Commissioner’s Advisory Council.

In the St. James community, he is a member of the Community Partnership Board of Directors, as well as the St. James Chamber of Commerce, Community Foundation, Forestry Board and Sports Club.

He said he chose Cassville because it is a respected district in the state, has educational opportunities, is a financially stable district, is in a faith-base community and is a great fit for both parties.

He listed his next steps as learning (building relationships and gaining input, plus a comprehensive review of district data), planning (work sessions with all stakeholders to develop plans to maintain strong areas and develop action plans for areas of concern), and leading (implementing a plan assuring the district continues a long-standing tradition of excellence).

Johnson will replace Asbill, who has been superintendent of Cassville for 11 years and has taken the superintendent position at the Bolivar school district.

Asbill leaves the district with a salary of $135,000, and Johnson will enter with a salary of $148,000.

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