HARVARD -- Less than two hours before Monday's Harvard School Committee meeting and citing "personal reasons," Dr. Jessica Huizenga of Burlington withdrew her candidacy for superintendent of the Harvard School District.

One finalist remains 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 Superintendent 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.

Huizenga's announcement was being broke to some of the School Committee members as they entered the room for Monday night's meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. The committee was expected to make their ultimate decision on a superintendent that evening.

Instead, the meeting opened with Chairwoman 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." Redinger stated after the meeting that Huizenga hadn't yet sent any written notice of her intent to withdraw from consideration.

It was a body blow to the School Committee, which has worked diligently over several months to field a superintendent search subcommittee, advertise for the post, narrow the candidate pool, interview finalists and tour their home districts, and announce its three finalists.

Public interviews of the two remaining finalists were conducted last week, Carpenter on Thursday and Huizenga on Friday. Earlier in the day for their respective visits, each finalist toured Hildreth Elementary School and The Bromfield School to meet with staff before meeting residents for an informal question-and-answer session on a variety of issues.

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, which requires a formidable 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 for a vote to table the discussion "pending an opportunity for further review." Ultimately the board later 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 decision by Jan. 21. There was no deliberation as to whether the committee or any members wished to proceed to offer the post to Carpenter, seek another set of candidates from the existing resume pool, start from scratch, or any other approach.

The new superintendent of schools is to start on July 1. Connelly, who technically retired in 2007 but has held a string of interim posts in recent years, 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.

The news of Huizenga's withdrawal may throw a wrench in the works for Connelly. Connelly is employed this school year on an 80 percent schedule, but advised the committee that he's ahead of schedule by five days. Later in the meeting, he waived off any concerns over the need to come in Friday for the special committee meeting, which will become his sixth reported day working beyond his reduced schedule.

Before the meeting closed out, committee member Bob Sullebarger shared that he was "disappointed," and added "sometimes things happen for a reason. We'll move forward."

Committee member Kirsten Wright cribbed from the school district-wide "Habits of Mind" curriculum, which teaches students life skills. Today's lesson? "Perseverance," she laughed.

An email made the rounds over the weekend, penned 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. School Committee Chair SusanMary Redinger was also copied on the email.

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."