WEST NEWBURY — The Pentucket Regional School Committee may find the choice of a new superintendent more difficult to make than it thought.

A search initiated earlier this year for a replacement for retiring Paul Livingston should reach a conclusion within the week, but who will be offered the spot is still very much an open question.

As part of the selection process, earlier this month, the committee visited school districts for four finalists: Justin Bartholomew, Pittsboro, N.C.; Richard Langlois of Saugus school system; Winchendon's Brooke Clenchy and Jeffrey Mulqueen of Worcester public schools.

On Tuesday, the board spent more than an hour and a half recapping the visits and reference checks. Feedback was similar for each candidate. They all were described as hardworking and highly skilled people of integrity who were visionary and innovative in finding educational and financial solutions. Relationships with their teachers union, staff and students were strong.

Bartholomew "had a learner's mind, rather than a knower's mind." Mulqueen is "unassuming, but with a mind like a computer." Langlois was "not a smiler, but you can tell he really cares." Clenchy was credited with raising school morale to "the highest it's been in 15 years."

With little to differentiate the candidates so far, the school board agreed the determining factor will likely be the hourlong interviews scheduled for this week and next. The board plans to make its choice following the final interview on Tuesday night. A public reception for each candidate will be held from 6 to 6:30 p.m. in the high school library on the day of his or her interview. Interviews will be held in the modular 3 classroom at the high school at 7 p.m. as follows: last night, Mulqueen; tonight, Langlois; Monday, Bartholomew; and Tuesday, Clenchy.

Chris Wile, who chaired the search subcommittee, credited Massachusetts Association of School Committee consultant Mike Gilbert with finding such qualified matches for Pentucket, saying, "It's the best money this school district has spent."

In other business, the board welcomed interim business manager Dave Jack, who will fill the post for the next nine months. Amy Pocsik's resignation is effective Friday. Jack is the former superintendent of schools in Amesbury; he retired last year.

The committee will hold a special budget discussion on Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. and a public hearing on the budget Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Both meetings will take place at the high school. A meeting with the district's tri-town finance committees is slated for Feb. 13 at 7 p.m. in the middle school cafeteria. Livingston said that he was cautiously optimistic that financial indicators suggest that the budget shortfall for next year may not be "as horrendous" as it previously has been. Lower health care costs, reductions in fuel costs and a slight decline in enrollment districtwide are factors.

"No guarantees, but the crystal ball is beginning to look a little better," he said.

Livingston reported on the status of Green School Repair projects under way at the elementary schools. In most cases, replacement boilers and new roofing are completed. Updates to windows are scheduled to begin in March.

The board accepted a $350 donation from the Merrimac PTO for math flashcards for first- and second-grade classes at Sweetsir School and donations for Bagnall School fourth-graders' Open Space and Trail project made by Mr. and Mrs. Raftery and Mr. and Mrs. Calderwood.

The board briefly discussed a letter from the Pentucket Fine and Performing Arts Foundation requesting a more balanced approach to implementation of the district's new strategic plan. The plan, developed by more than 700 teachers, students and community members, identifies four key focal points to inform budgeting decisions over the next five years: rigorous academics for all students; development of real world skills and social responsibility; recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers, and maintaining a strong Fine and Performing Arts and Electives program. Forty-four percent of the action items identified by the committee in December to be implemented in the first year of the plan fell under the category for academic rigor, as compared to "just 15 percent for items in the Fine and Performing Arts and Electives category," the letter noted. Chairman Chris Reading reminded members to keep the four focus points in mind as the budget process proceeds.

Anyone interested in serving as the Groveland representative on the Whittier Vocational Technical High School Committee should submit a letter of intent to naffah@prsd.org or contact Marianne Naffah in the Central Office no later than Feb. 2.

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