HARAVRD - Less than two hours before Monday's Harvard School Committee meeting,' Dr. Jessica Huizenga of Burlington withdrew her candidacy for superintendent of the Harvard School District.
And then there was one finalist left, from an original pool of some 30 candidates.
On Dec. 10, the Harvard School Committee had announced three finalists for the post: Huizenga, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School Supt. Scott Carpenter, and Dr. Judith Paolucci of Yarmouth, Maine.
But Paolucci was also a finalist for the superintendency in Leicester. Paolucci accepted the Leicester post days before Christmas.
News of Huizenga's decision was being shared with some school committee members as they entered the Town Hall meeting room for Monday night's meeting, which started at 6 p.m. The committee was expected to select among the two remaining finalists last night.
Instead, the meeting opened with Chair SusanMary Redinger announcing that Huizenga had called her at 4:15 p.m. that afternoon, advising that she was withdrawing her candidacy due to 'personal reasons.'
It was a body-blow to the school committee, which has worked diligently over several months to advertise the post, field a large superintendent search subcommittee, which narrowed the candidate pool, interviewed finalists and toured their present school districts.
Public interviews of the two remaining finalists were conducted last week - Carpenter on Thursday and Huizenga on Friday.
Huizenga told the audience on Friday that she was looking forward to change. She's presently the interim superintendent of schools for the Freetown-Lakeville regional school district. Accepting the Harvard job would half her daily commute from her Burlington home. Huizenga has a husband and young son.
"It's unfortunate," said Redinger. "Some of us are just learning about it as we sit down at the table. I'm sure it will be a surprise."
Committee member Keith Cheveralls suggested the board needed "a little time to digest this" and asked to table the superintendent hiring discussion "pending an opportunity for further review." Later in the meeting, the committee voted to meet this Friday, Jan. 18 at 1 p.m. in the Town Hall meeting room to discuss what steps to take next.
Interim School Superintendent Joseph Connelly said, but for Huizenga's announcement, the committee was "on schedule" according to its original timeline which called for a superintendent job offer by Jan. 21. No committee member offered any insight as to whether they'd prefer to proceed to offer the post to Carpenter, seek another set of candidate from the existing resume pool, start from scratch, or any other approach.
The new superintendent of schools is to start on July 1, 2013. Connelly, who technically retired in 2007, has held a string of interim posts in recent years. Connelly has served as interim Harvard School Superintendent for the last two school years under "critical need" shortage waivers granted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
This year, Connelly is employed on a less than full time schedule, and is working on an 80 percent schedule. Connelly advised the committee that he's logged an extra five days at this point. Though he was not scheduled to work this Friday when the board will next meet, Connelly waived off any concerns that Friday will become the sixth day worked above his 80 percent schedule, stating it was too important to miss.
Before the meeting closed out, committee member Bob Sullebarger shared that he was "disappointed" by the turn of events and added "sometimes things happen for a reason. We'll move forward."
Borrowing from teh district-wide 'Habits of Mind' curriculum, committee member Kirsten Wright suggested that today's lesson would be in "perseverance."
WHISPERS? HUIZENGA COMMENTS
An email made the rounds over the weekend, authored by a member of the superintendent search subcommittee. Laura Villain, an alternate member of the Harvard Finance Committee, encouraged recipients to share the email widely.
The email was addressed to Harvard selectmen Lucy Wallace, Tim Clark and Marie Sobalvarro, with a carbon copy (cc) to School Committee Chair SusanMary Redinger.
In the email, Vilain expressed her support for Huizenga's candidacy, calling her "by far the better candidate." Vilain also stated that she wrote the email to "counter a biased and ill-informed whispering campaign against her that you may have heard." Vilain did not further explain the basis of any whisper-campaign in her email, and did not explain when later asked to expand upon her comments.
Among many other compliments, Vilain described Huizenga as "a natural leader. She has vision and the wherewithal to get there." Vilain encouraged readers to email Redinger with feedback about the two finalists.
"I really can't comment on my reasons [for withdrawing]," said Huizenga by email on Tuesday. "I'm sure you understand."
"I can't say I had any direct knowledge of a 'whispering campaign,' although intuitively, I did know that there was some that found me to be a bit 'scary," said Huizenga. "I have nothing but wonderful feelings about the community of Harvard. All of the people (parents, SC, Town Leaders, staff, students) I met were wonderful."
Asked if she'll stay on in Freetown-Lakeville, Huizenga answered, "I honestly don't know what my next steps will be."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.