GROTON -- After earlier meetings held to interview a pair of finalists for the position of superintendent, School Committee members punted in lieu of choosing between the pair.

The decision not to decide took place at a special meeting of the School Committee held Jan. 17. Some members were prepared to vote but after discussion concluded that more research was needed before the question could be moved forward, a decision was tabled.

"I think we have two very dynamic candidates," said Chairman Allison Manugian. "Both would bring different strengths to the district."

"We're extremely lucky to have two such qualified candidates," agreed member James Frey.

The statements reflected the committee's attempt to remain neutral on the two candidates, superintendent of Sutton schools Theodore Friend and assistant superintendent of Chelmsford schools Kristan Rodriguez, who were interviewed separately over the previous two days.

The two candidates presented committee members with a stark choice between experience and energy.

Before taking on the superintendency of the Sutton Public School system in 2010, Friend had served as associate superintendent of the Tantasqua Regional School District from 2008 to 2010, as a high school principal in 2009, and a teacher before that.

As a superintendent, Friend had much experience dealing with budgets and long-range planning, contract negotiations, professional development, strategic planning and all aspects of school administration.


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Meanwhile, Rodriguez has served as assistant superintendent in Chelmsford since 2011 and as director of curriculum in the Georgetown school system from 2008 to 2011. Before that, she was a principal for the Tewksbury school system for four years, assistant principal in Gloucester from 2002 to 2004, and taught middle-school English in Georgetown for three years.

Committee members began their Jan. 17 meeting by reviewing comments on the two candidates from school staff and town officials who, while admitting Friend's experience, seemed to feel "more comfortable" with Rodriguez.

Member Jon Sjoberg said he felt Rodriguez would fit better as part of the district's team.

Fellow committee member Leslie Lathrop also preferred Rodriguez citing the district's current fiscal woes and suggesting that Friend was not the person to carry the schools forward when those issues were finally settled.

Discussion petered out at that point when it was suggested that deeper background checks might be needed including questioning of each candidate's leadership team members back in their home districts, town officials, superintendents they worked for, faculty members, and anyone who had not been listed as a reference on resumes.

The lingering feeling, however, was that such checks should happen quickly so that the committee could move sooner rather than later on a final decision.

Any new information will be reported at the committee's next regular meeting this Wednesday and if information is still insufficient, site visits to the candidates' schools would be the next step.

Whoever is finally chosen would replace interim superintendent Anthony Bent in July. Bent has been filling in on the job since 2012 when former superintendent Joseph Mastrocola resigned.

Override

Also at the Jan. 17 meeting, there was more talk, albeit guarded, of a possible override as a last ditch effort to solve a recently discovered shortfall in the district's budget.

The approved school operating budget for fiscal 2013 was $35,200,000 but a review last year revealed that total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212.

With the obligation spread over several years, the district has managed to fill a gap of $684,626 in the fiscal 2013 budget with a series of cuts and found revenue.

The same approach yielded savings in the fiscal 2014 budget as well that has left an amount of $464,488 yet to be accounted for and that school officials continue to wrestle with.

Fiscal 2015 is expected to yield its own shortfall as the effects causing the fiscal anomaly continue to roll forward.

As areas to cut and sources of revenue dry up, reductions in personnel could follow unless something is done. 

Which is where talk of an override came in.

Acknowledging that taxpayers have been squeezed tight in the past few years, committee members were cautious about the possibility and the hazards of seeking an override.

In addition, they would have to contend with officials from Groton and Dunstable who have already warned against seeking an override for purposes of balancing the budget.

That said, the subject is likely to come up at a special meeting between the School Committee and town officials scheduled for Jan. 22.