Rob Watson, the current superintendent of Bozeman School District, will take over that same post for Missoula County Public Schools beginning July 1, following current superintendent Mark Thane’s retirement.
Trustees chose Watson unanimously in a Thursday board meeting. Watson was the sole Montana candidate among the finalists, who also included David Baugh, a Pennsylvania superintendent, and Jan Haven, a district leader in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In a surprise to the board, Baugh withdrew his application about an hour before the meeting, according to Jim Hager, a search associate for Ray and Associates Inc., a firm the district hired to assist in the superintendent search process.
“His comment was that where he is in his career as a superintendent and where he is in his current position, this is not the time for him to move,” Hager said, adding that Baugh said he had no intention of removing himself from the running prior to visiting Missoula.
After Baugh withdrew, trustees discussed the strengths they thought Watson and Haven could bring to the district.
Numerous trustees commented that they felt thankful to have highly qualified candidates to interview but ultimately, Watson’s understanding of the educational landscape in Montana and his mission to educate “every child” won the board’s approval.
“Your statement is very clear that every child could succeed regardless of their ability or their circumstances. … That’s what I believe,” Watson said in his interview Thursday morning.
Watson said that if he didn’t find “every child” in MCPS’ mission statement, he wouldn’t have applied for the job.
“Had it not been for a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse that taught my mother and my grandmother how to read, I wouldn’t be sitting in front of you today,” Watson said in his interview, adding that he believes in the power of education to change lives based on his personal experience.
Watson has been the Bozeman School District superintendent since 2012. Prior to that, he was the principal of Bozeman High School from 2009 to 2012. He was the principal of Sentinel High School in Missoula from 2005 to 2009, as well as the principal of Rattlesnake Elementary School and C.S. Porter Middle School.
Trustees’ selection of Watson followed a whirlwind of interviews, community and staff meet-and-greets with candidates, and final deliberation among trustees, all of which took place on Thursday.
Thursday’s packed schedule differed significantly from the board’s originally proposed timeline, which allowed trustees more time to consider candidates.
On Thursday morning, trustees interviewed the three finalists in person for the first time. They spent about an hour with each candidate in interviews that were open to the public.
Following a lunch break, the candidates met with teachers and staff. Late Thursday afternoon, the candidates met with a little more than 20 community members during an hourlong meet-and-greet, where attendees filled out candidate feedback forms.
The meet-and-greet concluded at 5:30 p.m., after which trustees reviewed copies of the community feedback forms individually, before attending the board meeting to announce the final candidate at 8 p.m.
Board chair Marcia Holland said Thursday’s schedule was the result of balancing the candidates’ schedules (especially for those who came from out of state) with trustee availability, in addition to the need to make a decision in a reasonable amount of time.
“One of the considerations that was discussed as a board was that there is a school board election coming up,” Holland said. “If there is a shift on the board, we would have to start over again.”
Although the tight timeline didn't allow much time for community input on the candidates, Jessica Tuberty, a Big Sky High School teacher, said she felt all of the candidates were highly qualified and she trusted the board's decision, following the community meet-and-greet.
The initial timeline was changed following the cancellation of two board meetings due to a snow day and spring break. It wasn’t until last week’s board meeting on Tuesday, April 9, that trustees selected their top three candidates to interview.
At the April 9 meeting, trustees held a private executive session where they chose Baugh, Haven and Watson as their top candidates.
During the session, trustees reviewed resumes and other application materials, in addition to short pre-recorded video interviews where the candidates responded to questions without advance preparation.
The 10 candidates that Ray and Associates presented to the board were narrowed down from a pool of 26 applicants after the firm conducted limited background checks, contacted references, and checked other boxes such as whether a candidate would qualify to be a superintendent under state law.
Despite the full day of events on Thursday, trustees felt confident in their decision.
Trustee Diane Lorenzen commented that she felt Watson's Montana origins were an advantage for a variety of reasons, especially since “we know what goes on in Bozeman, so if he made a mistake, we would know about that," she joked.
Thane said he hasn’t had much time to think about leaving the position yet, although the announcement is making it “more real.”
“I'm just so incredibly grateful for this opportunity,” Thane said. “It’s going to be a busy last couple of months. There's a lot of work to do, a lot of projects that I would like to get some degree of closure on before I make that transition but I do think that the district is so well-positioned.”