SALEM — Despite concerns that a shortened, summer search might not turn up a strong candidate, the Salem School Committee appears poised to pick a new superintendent when it meets Monday night.
Following public interviews yesterday with two finalists, several school board members, while declining to reveal their choice, said they believe they will be able to vote for a new school boss at Monday's 7:30 p.m. meeting.
"I feel comfortable we have a candidate," member Nate Bryant said as he left the meeting.
"I think we have a potential candidate," echoed Mayor Kim Driscoll, the chairwoman, as she prepared to depart.
Veteran member Jim Fleming also thought he would be ready to vote Monday.
"We might have a candidate," he said. "I think the school district needs the stability of a permanent superintendent if we can find one."
The search for a new school boss began in May after the unexpected news that Superintendent William Cameron, who has been here four years, is leaving to head a school district in western Massachusetts. Cameron told officials he doesn't want to leave, but feels he has to for family reasons.
The city hired Dr. Philip Devaux of Marblehead as a consultant and started advertising for a new superintendent. Unlike many other superintendent searches, when there is more time to plan, this one has been compressed over the summer months.
Out of 18 candidates, the choice has come down to Stephen Russell, former superintendent of the Dartmouth public schools in Massachusetts, and Debra Bradley, former head of the Sausalito Marin City School District in California. Russell left Dartmouth after the end of the school year, while Bradley retired in June.
The school board interviewed the finalists for two hours yesterday afternoon in the School Committee chambers at Collins Middle School.
They were asked a series of questions about educational issues, and also a few personal ones.
Bradley, who has been superintendent of three systems in California, was asked about an abbreviated, one-year stay in a large school district outside Los Angeles. She resigned after reaching a monetary settlement with the school board.
She said she signed a settlement agreement that prevents her from speaking about it publicly. She did say, however, that she had a conflict with the board over "budget priorities" and that the parties "agreed that we disagreed."
In a pointed question, School Committee member Brendan Walsh asked Bradley why, in an earlier interview, she said she left due to "illness."
Walsh asked if that reply was "incomplete" or "disingenuous." She said it had been truthful, but not the whole story.
Russell was asked about his reasons for leaving Dartmouth after reaching a contract impasse with the school board over salary and other issues. He said the Dartmouth board was willing to offer him a three-year contract, but that he was "not willing to accept" it and looking for a new challenge in his career.
If selected, both candidates said they would reach out to The Point, a neighborhood with many Spanish-speaking residents, as well as other low-income areas.
During a tour of Salem, Bradley said she perceived a "sense of isolation" in the neighborhood off Lafayette Street.
"Maybe we (i.e., the School Department) should be there more often," she said.
Russell, a candidate in other communities, made a similar observation about forming a stronger connection with a minority community.
"In truth," he said, "we need to go out to where (residents) are."
Over the next few days, board members will call school and municipal officials in communities where Bradley and Russell have worked to find out more about the two finalists.
No site visits are planned.
Although three of the seven members appear ready to choose a superintendent, not every member sounded certain.
"Do I have a candidate?" Walsh said. "No, not right now."