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Johnson Tapped for School Association Leadership Award
February 14, 2011

Michael D. Johnson, executive director emeritus of the Illinois Association of School Boards, was honored during NSBA’s Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C.

Johnson was named this year’s recipient of the Thomas A. Shannon Award for Excellence in School Boards Association Leadership.

On hand to honor Michael D. Johnson, executive director emeritus of IASB, who received NSBA's Shannon Award for school board association leadership are, le-r: Michael Bartlett, deputy executive director; Mark Metzger, IASB past president; Johnson; Joseph Alesandrini, president; and Carolyne Brooks, vice president.

Johnson was one of 14 executive directors nominated for the award, which was established in 1997 to honor NSBA’s former executive director, Thomas A. Shannon. The award was presented Feb. 5 by Carolyn Ortman, NSBA regional director.

The nomination was submitted by Joseph Alesandrini, president of IASB, and a member of the Pekin CHSD 303 board of education. His nomination stated: “Dr. Michael D. Johnson arrived as executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards in 2000 and has been ‘a veritable force of nature’ ever since.”

In his tenure, the Association has seen its staff more than double, its membership increase to all-time highs and the completion of three separate capital construction programs.

The staff size has increased in response to ever-growing demand for the Association’s services. That growth, in turn, led to the need for additional space, which in turn created more capacity for services.

The first capital project was to replace IASB’s headquarters in Springfield. The new building, opened in 2003, was delivered on time and under budget and paid for entirely from cash reserves the Association had accumulated.

The Springfield headquarters was expanded in 2006 and the Association’s suburban Chicago offices were overhauled and expanded in 2007.

Meanwhile, IASB’s membership has reached all-time highs. Currently there are only 14 districts out of 866 that are not members of the Association.

Johnson was also praised for his entrepreneurial fundraising and his ability to find revenue opportunities throughout Association operations.

Alesandrini noted that Johnson also has a gift of seeing opportunities for partnerships. In the early 2000s, the IASB board of directors began an effort to build a web-based tool advocating for public education to serve as a resource to help parents and local board members understand and appreciate the important role of public education.

When he learned of NSBA’s interest in building the Center for Public Education website, Johnson saw the potential for aligning the Center’s goals with IASB’s goals for its own site. He made a case to the IASB board of directors to initiate a $150,000 commitment to the Center – the first from any NSBA federation member. It led the way to a series of major contributions to the Center from other state associations.

“That’s fundamentally the pattern of Mike’s service to IASB,” Alesandrini said. “It is one of creating opportunities, enhancing the legitimacy of the Association and building success in partnership with others.

“Mike is fond of saying, ‘I didn’t build this race car — those who came before me did. My goal is just to try to drive it a little harder and faster’.”

Because of his credibility with educational leaders in Illinois, Alesandrini also noted that Johnson has become the leading advocate for school management issues in the state. The IASB executive serves as a sounding board for new state initiatives or regulations. This, in turn, has allowed IASB to assume the role of policy shaper as legislators and regulators consider laws that have an impact on school operations.

In fact, IASB’s advocacy staff is regularly invited to offer testimony not just on the matters for which they’ve formally made a request, but also for matters where the legislators are curious about how one approach might be better for schools than another.

Johnson also has been recognized as a leader among his state association peers, for his work as a mediator on contentious issues and other matters involving federation members and the national association.

NSBA faced a major challenge in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city of New Orleans, where the national conference was to be held in April 2006. NSBA was forced to scramble for a new location with less than six months to plan the event.

Because of IASB’s tenure and relationship with downtown Chicago and its annual conference, NSBA turned to Johnson for his help in securing an alternate site. Despite the long-scheduled presence of three other major conferences in Chicago during the time of the NSBA conference, Johnson was able to secure hundreds of hotel rooms from IASB’s hotel partners in a matter of hours. He also persuaded key advisors to Mayor Richard Daley about the importance of Chicago hosting an event that would put public education on its stage.

The mayor’s staff, with assistance from IASB, helped NSBA secure the scattered hotel commitments to make a conference in Chicago a reality. They also met with hotel union leaders and hotel managers, and they jointly announced that the city, the hotels and the workers would set aside a portion of the proceeds from the conference to the hotels and restaurants of New Orleans and their staffs. That gesture earned NSBA additional, enviable news coverage in the months following the conference when the funds were delivered to New Orleans.

Accepting the award, Johnson said that the IASB staff is responsible for the success of the Association’s programs and initiatives. “My job has been to remove obstacles for the staff, provide encouragement when needed, and make money to pay for new programs.”

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