GROTON -- Meeting behind closed doors for the fourth and final time on the evening of Dec. 20, members of the Superintendent Search Screening Committee concluded their schedule of interviews which officials hope will eventually yield a new, permanent superintendent for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District.

The search process began in earnest in October, when the School Committee advertized for the position.

With a deadline of Nov. 20 for the submission of applications, Screening Committee Chairman Leslie Lathrop reported that 26 had eventually been received and reviewed.

According to a schedule handed out to the School Committee earlier in the fall, preliminary interviews of applicants were to begin by Dec. 14 and just prior to the meeting of Dec. 20, Lathrop said the last of the interviews was to have been completed.

"We had a very strong pool of candidates," was all Lathrop ventured to say about the process, citing rules of confidentiality.

Lathrop did say, however, that the review process went smoothly and remained on schedule, with the committee being ready to submit a list of finalists to the School Committee on Dec. 24.

The district was forced into the search process when it was learned last year that popular superintendent Joseph Mastrocola planned to leave the position after only two years on the job.

Mastrocola had been hired in 2010 to replace the departing Alan Genovese.

Preferring not to rush a search for Mastrocola's replacement, the School Committee hired Anthony Bent as interim superintendent last spring and immediately began to make preparations for hiring a permanent replacement.

A screening committee was established with members representing a cross-section of the community, including the Boards of Selectmen of both Groton and Dunstable, school administrators and teachers, a parent and a senior citizen, and a student.

In drawing up questions for candidates, committee members were guided by a thick handbook listing the qualities being sought in a superintendent who needed to be "innovative and forward thinking," who could translate the district's goals into successful programs, who would be able to lead the district's efforts to incorporate technology into its teaching programs, and who possessed qualities of leadership and management.

Also important were the ability to communicate clearly with staff and the community at large, to formulate a budget, to motivate employees in the role of a "team leader," to "listen and learn," and "plan and support."

In past years and most recently during the search process that had ended in the hiring of Mastrocola, the district experienced difficulties in attracting strong candidates for superintendent due largely to stiff competition among schools. This time, however, Lathrop expressed satisfaction with the range of talent who had applied for the position.

The Screening Committee was expected to submit its list of finalists to the School Committee during Christmas week. The committee will then conduct its own interviews in January.

A vote on who among the finalists the School Committee will choose as the district's next superintendent will take place in February.

First day on the job for the new superintendent is scheduled for July 1.