SALEM — Stephen Russell, former superintendent of the Dartmouth public schools in Massachusetts, was chosen last night by the School Committee to be Salem's next superintendent.
Russell won the support of five committee members, including Mayor Kim Driscoll. Members Janet Crane and Kerry Martin preferred Debra Bradley, the other finalist for the job. Bradley recently retired as superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District near San Francisco.
Russell will succeed William Cameron, whose last day in Salem is Friday.
Citing his experience and personality, committee member Kevin Carr said Russell was the "best fit for the district."
Committee member James Fleming said Russell rose to the top of a competitive 18-candidate field. "I strongly and firmly recommend him," Fleming said.
Russell is former head of the Gilford, N.H., public schools and of a regional school district in New Hampshire. He served as superintendent in Dartmouth for seven years, beginning in 2003. In an interview last week, he told the committee he was seeking a new professional challenge after reaching a contract impasse with the Dartmouth School Board over salary and other issues.
Russell could not be reached for comment last night.
Martin spoke in favor of Bradley's candidacy, highlighting her experience reducing class sizes and working with at-risk student populations during her 40 years in California schools.
Bradley was superintendent of three systems in California. She had an abbreviated one-year stay in Fontana, a large school district outside Los Angeles. She resigned after reaching a monetary settlement with the school board.
During an initial interview in Salem, Bradley said she left the district due to "illness." Last week, she said the settlement agreement prevented her from publicly discussing the reasons for her departure, but acknowledged she had a conflict with the board over "budget priorities" and that the parties "agreed that we disagreed."
"There were too many unknowns, too many doubts," committee member Nate Bryant said of Bradley. "And I'm not convinced that those doubts were answered appropriately."
Crane defended Bradley, saying she had the full support of the teachers and parents. "She walked into a situation that was perilous at best," Crane said. Bradley was a leader who could help raise Salem's test scores, Crane said.
Committee member Brendan Walsh admitted that Bradley might have more of an "upside," but he said Russell was a safer choice. The administrators he left behind in Dartmouth had the highest praise for him, according to Walsh.
"We need someone who will support the momentum we currently have going," Walsh said.
Salem, a 4,600-student district with a $49 million budget, is opening a new charter school in September for high school dropouts and students at risk of dropping out. Carlton Elementary School is one of 26 "Innovation Schools" in Massachusetts and has been given state approval to explore dramatic changes in grade structure, teaching methods and curriculum. Major renovation projects are about to begin at Saltonstall School and Collins Middle School.
The committee launched an abbreviated search in late June in hopes of maintaining continuity in the district's leadership by finding a permanent replacement for Cameron, as opposed to an interim space holder. After four years in Salem, Cameron has accepted a position as superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District.
Driscoll said the committee had two talented candidates to consider and that the close choice came down to "splitting hairs." She liked that Russell had experience working within Massachusetts.
"He's certainly had to make his share of tough decisions," Driscoll said, referring to his having to close two schools in Dartmouth.
The committee must now negotiate a contract with Russell. The advertised salary for the position was between $140,000 and $170,000 a year. The only apparent sticking point could be the length of the contract, Driscoll said.
Using language that typically accompanies the start of the football preseason, the mayor said Russell should be on the job by the beginning of the school year.
"I'm assuming we won't have protracted negotiations," Driscoll said. "He'll be on time for training camp."