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Copper River superintendent chosen as Alaska’s next education commissioner

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: June 16, 2016
  • Published June 16, 2016

Michael Johnson, superintendent of the Copper River School District, was selected Thursday as Alaska’s next education commissioner. (Courtesy Alaska Department of Education and Early Development)

The Alaska Board of Education and Early Development on Thursday unanimously selected Michael Johnson of Glennallen, superintendent of the Copper River School District, as the state's next education commissioner and Gov. Bill Walker approved the appointment.

"I'm very excited. It's a huge honor," Johnson said in a phone interview Thursday about his new job. "I can't think of a better state to be called to be the commissioner for than the state of Alaska."

Johnson, 47, will start as Alaska's education commissioner July 1 with an annual salary of $141,156, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the education department. The salary is set by law, he said.

The nine-member board chose Johnson over Stewart McDonald, superintendent of the Kodiak Island Borough School District. The original pool of four finalists for the education commissioner job shrunk to two after Robert Boyle, superintendent of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School School District, and Susan McCauley, the interim education commissioner, pulled their applications.

The board appointed Johnson in a quick vote during its scheduled Thursday meeting in Juneau.

"Congratulations, Dr. Johnson. Welcome aboard," James Fields, board chair, said after Thursday's vote. Fields serves on the Copper River School Board. He said the decision on the next commissioner was "very tough."

Walker approved Johnson's appointment and he welcomed Johnson to his Cabinet in a statement Thursday from the education department. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott praised Johnson's experience in rural education in the statement.

"Having spent a large portion of his career in rural Alaska, Dr. Michael Johnson brings a perspective to this job that will serve our students well," Mallott said.

Johnson has worked in the Copper River School District since 1997, according to his resume. Johnson worked as an elementary school teacher and later a school principal and district curriculum and staff development director. He started as the district's superintendent in June 2009. This school year, the district enrolled about 425 students, according to state data.

"My priority will always be the classroom, the students in those classrooms," Johnson said.

The new commissioner also serves as president of the Alaska Superintendents Association and Alaska Council of School Administrators. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia International University and his doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In his new role, Johnson will oversee the state's education department and the its 53 school districts as well as operations at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a state-run boarding school in Sitka.

Johnson will take over the role currently held by McCauley, who was tapped to become the interim commissioner when Mike Hanley was asked to resign. Hanley started working as education commissioner in 2011. Walker and the board announced in February Hanley would step down and they would "steer the state's education department in a new direction."

McCauley had been named a finalist to become the permanent commissioner, but later withdrew her application. She said in an email to Alaska Dispatch News last week she wanted to spend more time with her family. Her husband works as a emergency medicine physician in Palmer.

"This has, by far, been the most difficult decision of my professional career," she wrote. "I feel a great deal of responsibility to the work I've been doing and I have really enjoyed many aspects of the commissioner position. But, the job is a big one that really never turns off. It deserves, and most certainly my children deserve, my focus and attention. In the end, I think, it's really quite simple: the timing is off."

Boyle could not be reached for comment Thursday about why he withdrew his application. Fields, board chair, said last week Boyle withdrew for personal reasons.

Johnson said he plans to move from Glennallen to Juneau with his wife and two children. He was not appointed to the commissioner position for a fixed term; instead, he "serves at the pleasure of the board," according to state law.

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