Nearly 400 people — many wearing stickers reading “Support Johnson” — filled an Arroyo Grande theater Tuesday evening to implore Lucia Mar Unified School District board members to reinstate a popular principal.
For more than an hour, about 35 students, parents and two English teachers showered the school board with stories of Nipomo High School Principal Michelle Johnson, whose kindness, generosity and passion have created a positive and supportive school environment for many students.
While the school board and district superintendent acknowledged their concerns, the pleas won’t stop Johnson from leaving her principal post at the end of the school year to take a job as the district’s adaptive physical education specialist, working with students with special needs of all ages.
“The fact that she’s had that impact on you guys is not lost on myself or the board,” Superintendent Jim Hogeboom told about 388 people seated in the Clark Center for the Performing Arts next to Arroyo Grande High School. “I can tell you that you’re not going to have the answers that you want. This is a personal matter.”
Johnson has said she’s leaving after seven years as principal for personal and professional reasons. She did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
She started at Nipomo High when it opened in 2002 as an assistant principal. Prior to that, she taught physical education at Arroyo Grande High School and coached girls’ soccer.
Soon after Johnson’s announcement in mid-April, students became concerned that she wasn’t leaving by choice and say they haven’t received a clear answer from the district. A petition urging the board to keep her as principal was signed by 945 people as of Wednesday afternoon.
School district administrators started interviewing candidates to replace Johnson last Friday.
Hogeboom said Tuesday that Johnson’s decision was “incredibly complicated, and we had many discussions about it.”
“She totally appreciates the love and support you have for her, but I also know that her decision is final and it wasn’t one that she came to quickly,” Hogeboom added. “We’ve heard what you said, and I think this is a time to transition. And I think it’s an incredibly difficult decision, but I ask for your support in that.”
“Shame on you,” one person yelled from the crowd in response. The school board then took a break and moved on to its regular agenda.
Besides wearing small stickers, some attendees wore red ribbons in honor of Johnson’s red hair and carried signs showing their support.
Some students spoke about Johnson’s support and school spirit, which they said created a family atmosphere at Nipomo High.
“I’m not afraid to go to school anymore. I feel loved,” said junior Jenna Clift, who said she was bullied in middle school and chose Nipomo High because she heard about its positive environment. “There’s no replacement for Mrs. Johnson, there is no substitution for Mrs. Johnson, and there is no other principal for Nipomo High School.”
She received a standing ovation from the audience.
Others said they wanted more transparency from district administrators.
“This is about a larger issue,” senior Kelly Barrett said. “The students, faculty and parents were very happy with Mrs. Johnson as our leader. What was so broken about Nipomo High School that this decision was made without the input of people that it was affecting?”