The trick was equivalent to hiding a gift from Santa Claus, but the Lockwood School District Board and staff managed to keep retiring Superintendent Eileen Johnson in the dark for three months.
The publicity shy educator had agreed to a small retirement party with her staff Wednesday evening.
Instead a couple of hundred of people from across Montana, including Johnson’s friends and colleagues, packed into the Lockwood Middle School commons to honor her.
Board vice chairwoman Sue Vinton sprung the surprise, saying Lockwood would never forget Johnson’s leadership in convincing residents to build a middle school. They couldn’t forget because they were naming the building after her: Eileen Johnson Middle School.
“It was perfect. You could have knocked Eileen over with a feather. She was all tears and everybody was clapping and shouting,” said Taylor Brown, a broadcaster and state senator, whose district includes the Lockwood schools.
“This has been a very emotional couple of days for me,” Johnson said. “I have such high regard for the people I work with in Lockwood. It’s just incredible.”
The board members kept the secret by asking Johnson to leave their meeting briefly after she announced her retirement three months ago, quickly and unanimously agreeing to name the school for her, and then never talking about the decision openly again.
“Which is how we kept the secret because, believe me, she knows everything that goes on in the district,” Vinton said.
Lockwood Middle School Principal Gordon Klasna called Johnson a “rock star amongst Montana superintendents.”
On April 16, the Lockwood board chose Tobin Novasio, principal/superintendent at Elder Grove School District just west of Billings, as the next superintendent. Novasio takes over July 1 at a salary of $90,000, plus benefits, according to Vinton.
“It was a very difficult decision because all three (finalists) were highly qualified,” Vinton said. “My opinion is Tobin clearly displayed a passion for our district.”
The other candidates were Brent Lipp, principal/superintendent at Canyon Creek School District west of Billings and Jim Nygaard, superintendent of Cordova Public Schools in Cordova, Alaska.
Johnson said she will work with Novasio to make the transition smooth.
One of the first challenges will be to figure out the operating budget.
On May 7, Lockwood voters approved a technology levy, but defeated the general mill levy 894-852.
Taking over from Eileen is a bit intimidating, Novasio said, but she’s just a phone call away.
“In coaching they say you don’t want to take over from the legend. You want to take over from the guy who took over from the legend,” he said.
He wanted to wait until he was more familiar with Lockwood to comment on the mill levy vote.
The middle school opened in 2008 after Lockwood voters approved a $13.4 million bond, including nearly $9 million for the building and money to replace campus heating and air conditioning systems. There was talk back then of naming the school for Johnson, but board members decided to wait until she retired.
“Without her, I don’t think that school would have ever been built,” said board chairman Tim Sather. “The voters approved the bonds, but she deserves the credit even though she won’t take it.”
When asked how she thrived for more than half a century as a teacher and education administrator, Johnson said she loved every minute.
“I love people. I love to see progress, to see things move, and I’m not afraid of change,” Johnson said.
During her tenure as superintendent, she said Lockwood’s seven-member board worked harmoniously.
“They don’t always agree on everything, but they know how to disagree with one another and they do it professionally,” Johnson said. “Our board meetings are serious and fun.”