HARVARD - Harvard School Committee member Bob Sullebarger said he's talked to seven of the 12 members of the former school superintendent search committee for a postmortem review of what worked and what didn't. Within four weeks of the three finalist names being revealed over the holidays, all three finalists withdrew from consideration for unrelated reasons in January.

"Generally people felt the team worked positively together," said Sullebarger. "There was a feeling that this was a big group and challenging to manage." Also not all participants were "crystal clear" on the group mandate "and what the actual scope was."

Semifinalist interviews seemed "onerous and too compressed for time" for panel members to "digest" candidate answers, reported Sullebarger. Also, some members stated a retrospective desire for both a "rubric" to rank candidate answers and "secret ballot versus open forum" candidate ranking.

Pushing forward in the hunt for a new superintendent, school committee Chair SusanMary Redinger said she's begun work this week on securing a "critical need waiver" from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). If granted, it would be the second waiver that Harvard attained to keep Joseph Connelly aboard as the district interim superintendent.

Connelly succeeded former Supt. Thomas Jefferson in 2011. Connelly, who otherwise retired in 2007, has worked a series of one-year temporary administrative posts for school districts which succeed in attaining waivers which permit him to collect a salary atop retirement benefits.

Connelly's 2011-2012 work in Harvard was made possible via a DESE waiver. For the present 2012-2013 school year, Connelly worked a reduced 80 percent work schedule which did not require a DESE waiver.

In the aftermath of this winter's failed superintendent search, the school committee has offered a one year contract option to Connelly, dependent on the granting of a second waiver. Connelly has accepted the conditional offer.

Redinger said she has no sense yet of the "turnaround time" on the waiver approval process but is still working to get all the procedural "ducks in order." Redinger said she's worked closely on this second waiver request with committee member Keith Cheveralls (who helped Harvard attain the first waiver to secure Connelly's services) and Mass. Association of School Committees Exec. Director Glenn Koocher.

Looking forward to filling the permanent post for the 2014-2015 school year, committee member Patty Wenger said she and fellow member Kirsten Wright have been investigating search firms to assist in the hiring process. Wenger said they received helpful advice from Harvard resident and father Bob Eiland who is a high tech head hunter.

"He's given us a lot of advice on what to look for and what questions to ask," said Wenger. The end goal is to generate a list of 3-5 firms that could provide an assist. Redinger said the final decision on which firm to employ would be made by full school committee.

DIR. OF PUPIL SERVICES

The search for a new Director of Pupil Services (encompassing the duties of the post formerly known as the Special Education Director) is well underway. Supt. Joseph Connelly said his search committee received 22 applications by the Feb. 28 filing deadline.

Interviews for six semifinalists are scheduled for next week. Site visits and reference checks are scheduled for the week of March 25.

Connelly's preferred candidate is to be announced at the School Committee's April 8 meeting. Though it's Connelly's hire to make, he stated he may have two finalists at that meeting if he was torn between two high ranking finalists. "I'd anticipate that more than likely won't happen," added Connelly.

HCTV/BROMFIELD STUDIO BUILD

Committee member Keith Cheveralls said cable committee member John Burns is keeping town officials well briefed on work afoot in the basement of the Bromfield School for the construction of studio space for Harvard Cable Television. The early outlook is that the renovations, being performed by students of Montachusett Regional Technical High School, may come in "just a little bit under budget," said Cheveralls.

Partition work was to be performed this week, followed by window and door framing and fitments. There's no move in date yet for HCTV. Cheveralls said the overhaul is being filmed for a video documentary which may be the first transmission aired from the HCTV/Bromfield studio.

MARCH 25 SCHOOL BUDGET HEARING

The committee will conduct a public hearing to hear community input on the proposed Fiscal Year 2014 School Dept. budget at the school committee's Monday, March 25 meeting. Though the meeting is to start at 6 p.m., the hearing itself was scheduled for a 7 p.m. start time at the committee's typical meeting location in the Town Hall Meeting room.

SCHOOL CHOICE SLOTS

The committee annually determines how many, if any, incoming School Choice students to accept from other districts at the reimbursement rate of $5,000 each. Connelly and his administrative team have located 18 slots for the committee's consideration based on projected class sizes and policies which cap the number of students per class.

The team has projected available space for added Choice students next year could include: 4 kindergarten, 3 first grade, 3 third grade, 6 sixth grade, and/or 2 ninth grade Choice students.

As of March 1, there are 1,209 pre-K through 12 students enrolled in the Harvard school district. Included in that number are 1,060 Harvard, 75 Choice and 74 Devens students.

There were 78 Choice students at the start of the year. However, one family moved away and another moved into town, dropping the Choice enrollment by 3 to 75 Choice students.

Also, this year 6 Choice students will graduate. Connelly said the rule of thumb is to replace Choice slots lost during the prior school year, meaning nine new Choice slots would be needed next year to maintain the same Choice revenue stream for Fiscal Year 2014.

But "clearly some grade levels more than others can handle additional students," said Connelly.

The committee will consider the Choice issue at its March 25 meeting. Any Choice slots made available will be advertised over the first two weeks of April. Competitions for grade openings are filled via lottery.

Hildreth Elementary School Principal Dr. Linda Dwight said the town census reflects that there are 42 children turning the age of 5 next year who'd appear to be eligible to enroll in the kindergarten program. The number is tracked to determine whether or not there should be four K classes (as there are this year) or three classes in the coming year.

This year, the committee successfully banked on the enrolment of 60 kindergartners, with classes of 15 students each. Next year "if we reach 58 we'll be very fortunate," said Connelly. School policy is for 15-18 students per kindergarten class.

Connelly calculated that, at this time, there appears to be need for only one pre-K session next year. If next year there's another mid-year spike in enrollments as there was this year, the committee could again hire a second pre-K teacher for the spring semester.

Connelly said his team recommends no more than 10 Choice students in any one grade level. Three grade levels presently exceed that goal: there are 18 sixth grade Choice students (18 percent of the total 99 sixth grade headcount), 14 ninth grade Choice students (constituting 13 percent of the 106 ninth grade headcount), and 13 eleventh grade Choice students (making up 13 percent of the total eleventh grade class size of 97 students).

Since the district pays on average $13,500 per pupil on education, Cheveralls noted the committee has "successfully moved" away from using Choice student enrollments as a "budget balancing tool, which it was four or five years ago." Still, the FY14 budget is based on receipt of $385,000 in Choice offsets, which equates to a total of 77 Choice students.

With talk of some 156 single family residential homes planned for Grant Road on Devens, Cheveralls said the "Devens issue" must be watched in relation to the Choice discussion. Devens students are educated in Harvard through a contract entered into with state agency MassDevelopment at the rate of $13,500 per student.

"As our Devens population increases, you could decide to decrease your number of school Choice students," agreed Connelly. "The $385,000 in school Choice offset is not a necessity to reach every year because you potentially have other revenues."

COMING TO A MAIL BOX NEAR YOU

The committee's inaugural newsletter was sent out via U.S. Mail this week. Wenger said the hope is for the publication to be sent on a regular basis town-wide.

Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.