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Superintendent has helped heal 'a thousand cuts' in Dayton School District

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Doug Johnson

Dayton School District Superintendent Doug Johnson oversaw his last graduation on June 6. Johnson is retiring at the end of this month after 11 years in Dayton.

Doug Johnson abandoned plans for his own pity party pretty early.

He is leaving at the end of this month as the superintendent of Dayton School District after an 11-year stint there. June 30 also marks the last day of a career in education that began more than 41 years ago.

When Johnson looked ahead to this moment, he predicted the usual retirement hoopla of staff parties with cake and handmade cards filled with good wishes from students.

But the longer school buildings stayed closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more that picture faded.

And the more tempting it was to be disappointed in the moment, Johnson said.

That didn’t last long, not when he thought about what the coronavirus has robbed from Dayton’s senior students, Johnson said earlier this month.

“To have their senior year impacted makes me take a step back and say, ‘You’ve had a lot of opportunities to do things’ and look at what this year’s seniors are going through.”

Johnson began his career while still a college student as a long-term substitute teacher in Woodland, Wash., just north of Vancouver.

Teaching was not the original plan, he said.

Wildlife management had been appealing to a young man who had grown up watching shows featuring underwater researcher and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau and the documentary TV show, “Wild Kingdom” with host Marlin Perkins.

“I was going to go live with the bears,” Johnson recalled with a laugh.

“Then I realized I didn’t pass science classes very well.”

Instead he majored in social studies and history, graduating from Washington State University in 1979.

When the Woodland high school had a full-time teacher position open, Johnson said he was just young and inexperienced enough to accept the job.

It stuck for 18 years, during which Johnson’s principal encouraged him to pursue administration credentials, he said.

“I think it was to get rid of me. I was always pushing the envelope, trying to do stuff a little differently than what people had done before.”

It wasn’t easy, cramming in those classes during the summer as well as the school year, but it did open possibilities, and by the time Johnson landed in Dayton in 2009, he’d seen enough to know he wanted to be on the drier side of the state.

He and his wife, Patti, arrived in Dayton during All Wheels Weekend, one of the town’s biggest events for the year.

The streets were blocked off with classic cars and the sidewalks jammed with visitors, and here were the Johnsons, driving a U-Haul and not knowing just where they were going.

The festive weekend, however, only temporarily hid the state of Dayton during that recession.

It was not long after that a major employer, Seneca Foods — formerly Green Giant — closed its 70-year-old cannery on East Washington Avenue, putting hundreds of seasonal workers and dozens of full-time employees out of work.

Families left town, taking with them about 150 students from the district over a four-year period. That created a financial fault line that forced the district to lay off teachers and staff, Johnson said.

Today Dayton School District has about 425 students and 34 teachers.

It took a heavy lift throughout the district to agree to cut spending wherever possible and to accept lower pay than teachers were making elsewhere to make up for the loss of enrollment.

“But staff understands the importance, they know Dayton is not Kennewick,” Johnson said.

“We have other attributes, like smaller class sizes and opportunities to make connections with parents that make it worth a few bucks less. We’re happy not being Kennewick.”

Johnson repaid this in his own currency.

“I brought a commitment to stay for a longer period of time. The job was for typically three or four year period, and then people are gone. For a lot of different reasons.”

As Johnson’s personal credo dictated, the plan was to establish roots and allow them to grow in Dayton.

That spoke to the community, said Jennie Dickinson, executive director of the Port of Columbia.

Having a superintendent stay for 11 years told Dayton families they were worth the investment, she said, and the resulting trust allowed Johnson to make some much-needed changes, Dickinson said.

Those included convincing people to vote on building repair and technology upgrade levies — those positioned Dayton better than many districts of the same size for the distance-learning model put to the test during this year’s pandemic.

Before Doug’s time, Dayton School District officials tried floating a building bond for $20 million — that failed “miserably,” she said.

“Doug listened to the community and said, ‘That was too much money for people.’ So he got it done in smaller ways.”

Through coffee talks, business and personal visits, Johnson wove himself into the fabric of the rural farm community and gained their trust, Dickinson said.

“He’s always 100% open to people. He was always ready to explain anything going on at the schools and the issues in the levies.”

Steve Martin was a member of the school board that hired Johnson, and he’s glad to this day they did so.

“Doug offered us stability, predictability,” Martin said.

“He allowed creativity. He encouraged community involvement. Doug was reasonable, he was approachable and he used great logic in his decision making.”

Dayton, Martin said, is a district of a thousand cuts.

“There are a lot of needs, and Doug was clear on that. People knew exactly what they were voting for.”

Under the superintendent, much-needed fixes came, including roofs that didn’t leak, additional electrical receptacles that can handle computers and upgraded security systems, Martin said.

One thing you have to know about Johnson — he’s not a pat-your-back and offer meaningless compliments, he said.

“So when he did compliment you or said something positive, it really meant something.”

In recent years, Johnson helped mold the athletic combine between Dayton and Waitsburg’s sports programs.

The concept of combining the districts to ensure enough players on teams, less travel and more community participation was not immediately popular with some Dayton families, Dickinson said.

“That was really difficult. You had some pitchfork meetings, parents were worried about losing their school’s identity,” she said.

“There is not drama with Doug, however, he stayed steady. And because he had community buy in, it worked.”

Johnson is quick to point out he stands on the shoulders of the school district’s staff.

“I was able to continue hiring really good teachers, people who were not only in teaching but in being part of the community. And that stretches to paraeducators and bus drivers, to kitchen staff and office support staff. I didn’t bring that with me, but I was able to continue it.”

He will miss education but not the current situation that separates educators from students, Johnson said.

“I hate to close the door on it, and my mind is open, but I am not out looking for anything.”

Now comes a time to spend with family, he said, and “retirement” trips will be planned when that becomes feasible.

For now, Johnson said, he is learning to look past the disappointment of ending a long career in a time that doesn’t let him say goodbyes properly, including at Dayton High School’s socially distanced graduation earlier this month.

Still, he’s been able to be part of 24 ceremonies in his career, with the privilege of seeing high school seniors move forward, Johnson said.

And that? That’s cake.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.