Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson | Credit: Ally Markovich/Berkeleyside

In the popular new Netflix series, The Chair, a prominent, popular professor is fired over a misunderstanding, which in other times might have been handled with an apology or just an explanation.

In Berkeley’s Crowden School and “real life,” Crowden Principal Brad Johnson, an acclaimed 25-year veteran on the faculty, was fired because of a complaint by parents and their threat to sue the school. Unlike The Chair, at Crowden, many students, faculty, and board members rallied to Johnson’s cause, but as of this writing, he is out of the job.

Unlike the fictional story’s Hitler salute, the Crowden firing’s cause was something seemingly absurd: “a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary test involving crustacean jokes,” according to Ally Markovich’s report in Berkeleyside. SF Classical Voice has obtained other tests by Johnson that could be seen as potentially offensive. As always with such controversy, there is a great deal more to the story, including both allegations of some students feeling “years of being bullied,” and what seems to be a seething conflict between faculty and administration.

At least four board members and three veteran faculty members are known to have resigned over Johnson’s firing. The teachers are violinist Heghine Boloyan and cellists Jane Lee and Monica Scott. Scott told SFCV: “The worst thing about the whole situation is how terribly sad it is. We are just heartbroken that we cannot teach such deserving and eager students in the toxic environment the place has become.

“Of course we support Brad Johnson, but that was not the only reason we decided this was the time to cut our ties. The pay is embarrassing. We have never felt appreciated by [Executive Director] Doris Fukawa, who leads the place like an isolated dictator. This pyramid structure that she has created creates a corporate feeling that leads to the inevitable dissolution of the faculty that are, in fact, the heart of the school.”

Several parents removed their children from Crowden in protest of Johnson's firing. Justin Davis and Lynn Kuo disenrolled their 8th grader a few days before the school year began, telling SF Classical Voice:

“...we no longer had faith in the leadership of the school following their mishandling of Brad’s termination. By suppressing information and openly ignoring community requests, Crowden leadership displayed a dismissiveness toward the parent community that belied either arrogance, obstinance, and/or incompetence. We pleaded with them for weeks to listen and care.

“We are deeply saddened to leave so many lovely faculty and families, and we dearly hope Crowden can repair, recover and grow into a more transparent and strongly-led organization where the joy of creating music thrives once again.”

Crowden School
Crowden School, subject of many laudatory articles in SF Classical Voice over the years, has a Constellation-equipped performance space | Credit: Meyer Sound Laboratories

Monday being a day of orientation for the school where the academic year begins on Sept. 1, there was no response from the administration to specific questions about Johnson’s dismissal, only a general statement:

At the Crowden School, we are steadfast in our commitment to offering the highest level of academic excellence and musical education. To achieve this, the school must act in a manner that protects and supports all children of our school community. When students and their families share concerns, our community must have confidence that we will address these concerns appropriately while also preserving privacy.

This approach is consistent with our values, and is one we are employing in the matter at hand. We continue to engage in constructive dialogue with our community, while remaining focused on acting in the best interest of our students and ensuring all students are adequately protected and supported. These are, and will continue to be, our guiding principles and priorities.

One of thorny issues raised in the Berkeleyside article is the allegation that a complaining parent demanded “two years of free tuition, free home school, and French tutors, compensation for his son’s emotional distress, assistance with getting his son admitted to another private school, and a change of his grade from a B+ to an A- in Johnson’s class.”

Asked about this claim, Crowden’s representative again declined all comments on the case, but called attention to the board of trustees’s “community communication” on Aug. 27. (Board Chair Cary Koh previously wrote to the Crowden community on Aug. 14: “The school determined there were errors in judgment that warranted Brad being relieved of a leadership position.”)

We were actively engaged with Brad Johnson for a number of months in attempting to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution regarding his employment at Crowden. We remain open to seeing if we can resolve this matter amicably and have offered to try again over the next week. If we cannot reach an agreed-upon resolution, we will offer Mr. Johnson an opportunity to resume employment for three months, on a paid administrative leave basis, while an independent review is conducted of the decision to remove Mr. Johnson from the role of principal and how the decision was reached.

When completed, the results of the review would be made public, with all students’ identifying information redacted. If Mr. Johnson declines the offer of paid administrative leave, he will still be invited to participate in the independent review. If he declines to participate, the review will go forward and we will share the findings with the Crowden community.

Throughout this process, we will take every measure possible to respect and protect the privacy and confidentiality of students. We are committed to keeping the community informed, so we will be communicating with you about the outcome of any further conversations with Mr. Johnson regarding a resolution of this matter, as well as about the independent review should one be undertaken.

Faculty members are asking, if Johnson “was posing a danger to students, why was he not removed physically from campus and put on a restraining order? He was let go of his position as principal but [tendered an] offered to stay on as English teacher. He remained teaching, no one knew of the situation between March 11 and the announcement on Aug. 3.”

A copy of one of Johnson’s controversial vocabulary tests, with the name of the student redacted

While not responding specifically to that question, the board of trustees announced that it is planning to separate the roles of principal and teacher “to make sure the candidate is an individual who is fully committed to maintaining a diverse and inclusive educational environment that supports all students ... Crowden will no longer employ a principal who serves in a dual capacity as faculty.”

Is the “Berkeley environment” part of this controversy? Crowden’s new strategic plan, as published on its website, includes a goal “to create a cooperative and inclusive classroom environment, including increasing status of students who may be marginalized due to racial/cultural/economic/ability differences.” There is no direct reference to racial/cultural/economic/ability concerns in communications about Johnson.

Johnson, who is reportedly planning to sue Crowden on three separate issues, could not be reached for comment, but SFCV obtained his departing message to colleagues, which included this statement:

... the Executive Director fired me in March. We disagreed extensively over whether to reopen the school for academic classes this past year. I advocated for it and pushed against her position to keep the school closed except for music. In my opinion the reopening of academic classes was vital to the students and parents, and showed our absolute commitment to our school community’s academic and social welfare. I had also been advocating for increased salaries for the staff, to no avail.

With apparent indifference to how such devastating news of termination would be received by me, she informed me of my firing on a Thursday morning, just before I was scheduled to teach my classes.

I was instructed not to discuss the matter with anyone, lest such discussion violate the terms of a separation agreement that the school would be offering me. I was offered an agreement that was wholly unacceptable even after I enlisted legal counsel to advocate for me. In the process I felt shunned and humiliated.

I am tremendously disappointed to be treated as I have by the upper administration of the Crowden Music Center. In 25 years of unstinting service, I have never once even taken a sick day, for which I now find I will not be compensated either. As you know, the school offers no retirement plan. After guiding the school through this past Covid-impacted year, the most difficult year in its existence, I find that my reward is a summary dismissal, and I will need to find a new way to support myself, unassisted, if not harmed, by the institution to which I devoted my career.

I am so sorry to face leaving my many dear colleagues, a number of whom have shared with me decades of school-related challenges and triumphs, have seen class after class of incoming students transform into wonderful young adults upon and after graduation, who continue to impress me with their dedication and commitment to education. I hope that each and every one of you will be treated with the respect and dignity that your experience, your commitment, and your integrity deserves. The school needs to stand behind its teachers, the lifeblood of the school.”

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