WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee voted 6-0-1 Friday afternoon to offer its vacant superintendent post to current Pittsfield Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless.
The committee over the course of two days remotely interviewed three finalists put forward to the district by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees from among 22 qualified applicants.
Maynard interim Superintendent Mary Jane Rickson and McCandless interviewed for the post on Thursday afternoon and evening. On Friday morning, the committee interviewed Portia Bonner, an education consultant who most recently was superintendent in East Haven, Conn., from 2013-17.
After about 20 minutes of discussion during which the committee members praised the strength of all three candidates, McCandless and Bonner emerged as the top two choices, with five of the members participating in the discussion saying McCandless was their preference.
Committee members commented on what they sensed to be a strong sense of empathy from McCandless, who served as a middle/high school principal and later superintendent in Lee from 2002-13 before taking the helm of the Pittsfield Public Schools in 2013.
"I think really what … was the deciding factor for me was his emphasis on prioritizing humanity, dignity, compassion and respect," said Jamie Art. "He framed this as his servant model of leadership. That is something that I think will serve the district very well over the coming years and help us chart a really very stable and productive course through all the challenges we're facing.
"I kind of see him as someone who, rather than focusing on driving results, is going to focus on how we can unlock all the potential that already exists in our schools among students, first, and staff and administrators and School Committee and the broader community."
McCandless, both in his interview and a half-hour virtual "meet and greet" with the community that preceded the sit down with the committee, emphasized the notion that a superintendent is a servant.
"I tend not to use the captaincy metaphor as much as a servant-shepherd metaphor," McCandless said Thursday when asked about his plans for transitioning to the corner office in the Lanesborough-Williamstown district.
"Even in a large district, like Pittsfield, I'm not necessarily the top of the food chain," he said in reply to a different question in the hourlong interview. "I'm one of the servants there who can help solve problems."
One member of the School Committee, Regina DiLego, participated in Friday's meeting but skipped the three interviews. She also did not offer her thoughts on the finalists and abstained from the final vote.
The other six members began the consideration by listing their top two candidates without ranking them. After that "straw poll," McCandless was in the top two for all six committee members; Bonner was mentioned as a finalist by four, and Rickson was identified as one of the top choices by Steven Miller and Al Terranova.
But when it came to the next phase of the discussion, Terranova said McCandless was a clear front-runner.
"I didn't think it was close," Terranova said. "Dr. McCandless was my No. 1 choice."
Terranova said the Pittsfield superintendent's recommendations were what put him over the top.
"All the candidates — we all want to talk the talk," Terranova said. "We all want to be team workers, we all want to network. No one says, they don't want to do that. What I liked about McCanndless was that he walked the walk.
"He got the recommendation from not only the mayor of Pittsfield. He got a recommendation from the chief of police. That's telling me that not only is he talking to those people, he's working with these people well enough for them to say, 'I'd be willing to give you a recommendation.' To me, that says, he walks the walk."
Chair Christina Conry said she felt "incredibly strongly" about McCandless and also pointed to his references as well as the feedback the committee received from the community members who participated in the meet-and-greet session on Thursday.
"The things we kept hearing in terms of the references we were getting, the feedback we received: empathy, compassion, relatability, thoughtfulness, well-rounded, committed, respected, inspiring, understanding of the area, understanding of the local culture, excellent reputation," Conry said. "Those were the words that kept coming back and back on top of having direct exposure to COVID planning experience, I think is incredibly important.
"To me, that's what bumped him up to the top in my opinion."
Conry's second choice after the interview phase, Bonner, was the lone candidate not currently serving as a superintendent during the planning for this fall's resumption of school after March's closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ali Carter was the lone committee member to identify Bonner as her first choice during the discussion.
Carter said she was "inspired and excited" after McCandless' interview on Thursday evening but then was "blown away" by Bonner in the Friday morning interview.
"I'm very torn," she said. "I keep going back and forth."
"I think [Bonner] also would be a fantastic addition to the district," Carter said. "She has so many qualities our students, faculty and families could benefit from. Both candidates are really poised to elevate the district. Both have experience and proven track records on issues concerning our community."
Carter said she agreed with Conry's point about McCandless being able to hit the ground running in the COVID-19 era because he already is dealing with the same issues in the Pittsfield Public Schools.
Carolyn Greene, who moderated all three virtual meet and greets and reported to the committee on the survey responses of community members who attended, was one of the four committee members who listed McCandless and Bonner as their top two choices.
"I also lean toward Dr. McCandless right now," she said later. "In a way, I think we're not ready for Dr. Bonner. We're not quite to the point where we can take full advantage of everything she has to offer us."
Greene echoed the belief that McCandless is best suited to "hit the ground running" during the pandemic and noted that his existing relationships with educators throughout the county will be an asset to the district.
In Thursday's interview, when McCandless asked what the School Committee was looking for a superintendent, Greene said, "stability and cohesion." On Friday, she expanded on that comment.
"To be able to support our staff, support our students, bring a calming and really genuine and reliable tenor to the district — we have so many strengths, and in some ways we've been hampered for a number of years," Greene said. "This is our time. I really feel like this is our time. And I feel like, of these candidates, at this moment in time, Dr. McCandless is the strongest candidate to — not just bring stability, which is what I said, but to also bring excellence, really bring out our excellence."
Putnam also Friday announced that while he is going ahead with a proposal to start the year with Mount Greylock’s sophomores, juniors and seniors staying fully remote, he and the administrative team also have developed a plan to bring the 10th through 12th graders to school one day a week, on Wednesdays; Mount Greylock’s middle school students and freshmen would participate in a hybrid learning model that would see half the students in school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays, according to the current plan.