S. Taylor Johnson’s arrival in Oceanside more than 100 years ago brought stability to the school district and helped to unify the community as a whole. While almost completely forgotten in today’s world, his place in the annals of the Oceanside School District is quite significant.
The district’s origins stem back to early 1800’s. It was designated as a Common Free School District in the mid-1800’s and changed into a Union Free School District in 1899. However, it was the hiring of Johnson in 1918 that was a turning point in the district’s history. Although the district had originally included the Long Beach barrier island, including today’s communities of Long Beach, Atlantic Beach and Point Lookout, Island Park and Rockville Centre, by 1918 the district’s boundaries were essentially as they are today.
The Oceanside community, however, was divided. After the uproar that occurred following the Oceanside Board of Education’s termination of a third grade teacher in 1911, the next seven years saw nine changes in elected trustees on the board, and five different supervising principals. The division was also reflected in the board, which had recently agreed after a 3-2 vote to part ways with its recently hired supervising principal.
In April 1918, Johnson was the supervising principal of the Highland Falls School District near West Point, in Orange County. One evening when he was getting ready for a school board meeting, Johnson was handed a telegram from the Oceanside board, which notified him that it was looking for a supervising principal and offered him the job.
Johnson must have felt a sense of déjà vu. Just one year earlier, he bested five other candidates and was offered the same position in Oceanside. Johnson, however, said that he felt that the salary was too low. He already had his position in Highland Falls and enjoyed being in upstate New York. After holding the position open until July, the Oceanside board selected another candidate — Vann A. Smith. Within six months, Smith had a falling out with Oceanside’s board members and submitted his resignation.
Less than a year later, Oceanside’s board was coming back to Johnson with hat in hand. Johnson wired back that there was no mention of salary and gave his own salary demand of $2,200, which he believed was more than they would be willing to pay him. While no known records exist detailing the board members’ individual reactions to Johnson’s response, the board promptly wired back accepting Johnson’s terms.
Though Johnson’s bargaining with the board proved to be simple and straightforward, the months leading to his arrival in Oceanside was anything but. There had been significant infighting among the board, as well as the Oceanside community as a whole. A faction of Oceanside residents tried their hardest to deter Johnson from accepting the position. He was sent newspaper clippings stating that a significant portion of the community favored retaining the current supervising principal and were not interested in having him come to Oceanside. The clippings stated the faction’s belief that its candidate for the board would likely win and result in a change its decision to hire Johnson.
While this rhetoric might have caused many people to decide it was not worth taking this position in a divided community, Johnson was not one of them. Johnson was very different from the individuals whom the board had chosen in the past. Just shy of his 46th birthday, Johnson was older and more experienced than the district’s previous supervisory principals. As one of his parent’s six sons from Davenport, N.Y., Johnson started teaching while still in high school at age 16. He moved around to different schools before becoming a merchant and opening and owning a store and becoming a ditch digger.
Johnson would eventually return to teaching and was appointed the principal of Hunter High School, in Hunter, N.Y. He then moved on to become supervising principal at Croton-on-the-Hudson High School for eight years before getting his position at Highland Falls. He had also served in leadership positions, including president of the Green County and Orange County teachers associations.
Given this backdrop, Johnson readily accepted the position offered by the Oceanside board and was determined to stay out of the fray.
“When I got to Oceanside I found out that the district was divided by factions,” Johnson once said. “The new people coming in from the city were opposed to the old residents, and the board was also split. I refused to take sides in the arguments, merely doing my job as principal, and so I stayed out of trouble.”
And in staying out of trouble and doing his job as principal, Johnson managed to succeed where many others had failed. He would remain as the head of the district for the next 22 years and leave an indelible mark on the district and the entire Oceanside community.