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WEYMOUTH

Search on for new schools chief

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2011

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The town’s public schools will open next week without a permanent superintendent, or a firm plan on how to find one.

But officials said they’re ready for the school year with Interim Superintendent Matthew Ferron in charge.

Ferron took over in April after the sudden death of Superintendent Mary Jo Livingstone, who died of natural causes at the age of 54. Ferron was assistant superintendent for the past four years, and worked for the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System before that.

Ferron applied for the superintendent position when the School Committee advertised for the job in June, but declined it when the search committee offered it to him last month. Ferron asked instead that the committee reopen the process and look for a new superintendent in a less hurried time frame.

School districts traditionally start their searches for superintendents in the winter, and there was concern from the start that Weymouth would be unlikely to attract good candidates over the summer.

Cohasset, for example, began its search for a new superintendent last fall and held numerous meetings with teachers and community members - as well as public interviews with three finalists - before naming Barbara Cataldo to the job, effective July 1. Foxborough went through a similar process before promoting assistant superintendent Debra Spinelli to the top job, also effective July 1.

Sharon and Marshfield also are starting the school year with new superintendents, both promoted from assistant. In addition to Weymouth, 11 other school systems - including Middleborough - will begin with interim superintendents, according to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Ferron said he didn’t want Weymouth to be rushed into filling a position.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the system and myself that we all take a little more time to make sure we’re doing the best thing for the school system and the community,’’ he said to explain his decision.

“I think we’re in good shape for this upcoming year. I’m confident we’ll have a great year. But in terms of the long run, the system needs some time,’’ he said. “Right now, we’re still in the healing process’’ of recovering from Livingstone’s untimely death.

Ferron said he submitted his application “to be loyal to the system’’ and to provide stability. But, he said, he wasn’t sure he really wanted the job.

“I have a young family, and this job is brutal [with] its hours,’’ Ferron said. “I have a good life and I don’t need to complicate it.

“But the reason for my decision sincerely is about what’s best for the system. If there’s someone who can inspire the system to be better, that’s something I need to consider as well.’’

When Weymouth started its superintendent search, officials left open the possibility that it could be fruitless and promised not to “hire somebody for the sake of hiring somebody’’ and, if necessary, to restart the process, said School Committee chairman Sean Guilfoyle.

Guilfoyle cochaired the 11-person search committee with former superintendent Joseph Rull, who retired in 2007 and was replaced by Livingstone, who had worked in the Weymouth schools as a teacher and administrator for more than 20 years.

Twenty people applied for the job, and the search committee interviewed three in private, deciding to offer the job to Ferron without releasing the names of any of the other candidates.

Some School Committee members complained about the secrecy of the process and asked that a new search be more open.

“I didn’t even know who was on the search committee,’’ said School Committee member Gerald Murphy. “We’re elected and we get asked questions by the public, and I didn’t have any answers. Going forward, I’d like to know more [about] what’s going on.’’

At its Aug. 25 meeting, the School Committee talked about possibly reopening the search in the winter, but made no decision. The committee meets next on Sept. 8, two days after school begins.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said 65 school districts in Massachusetts hired new superintendents this past school year, all before the 2010-2011 school year ended. Only Weymouth, Peabody, and Salem advertised for superintendents during the summer; and only Salem was able to find one.

Scott, a former superintendent for Concord and Carlisle, said that it’s becoming more difficult, nationally, to find qualified applicants for superintendent jobs at any time of the year.

“Today if you get a pool of 25 or 30 candidates, you’ve done well; a decade ago, it would be triple that,’’ he said.

Weymouth has close to 7,000 students and a school budget of $54.2 million. Livingstone’s salary as superintendent was $150,000.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.