The Bozeman School Board interviewed Tuesday two finalists for the superintendent’s job who come from very different backgrounds in education.

Josh Middleton, 49, assistant superintendent with the Billings School District for nearly one year, served eight years as superintendent of the 2,000-student Laurel School District.

Jim Warford, 63, of Portland, Ore., a keynote speaker and school consultant for seven years with the International Center for Leadership in Education, was superintendent for three years of the 40,000-student Marion County schools in Florida and was the No. 2 education administrator in Florida for two years under Gov. Jeb Bush.

The third candidate, Rob Watson, Bozeman High School principal, will attend a community reception today at 3:30 p.m. at Hyalite School and undergo a formal interview at 6 p.m. tonight at the Willson School boardroom. Both are open to the public.

At their formal interviews Tuesday, both Middleton and Warford said they admire Bozeman’s schools and would love to become the next superintendent.

Both men described their leadership styles as open and transparent, emphasizing communication, collaboration and consensus. They differed in speaking style, with Warford’s answers tending to run long, and Middleton saying he may not be as articulate as Bozeman’s retiring Superintendent Kirk Miller, but “I have the same passion” for education.

“I’m a terrible poker player. What you see is what you get,” Middleton said. “I’m here for students … and student achievement.”

Middleton said his greatest accomplishment was starting an arts-focused third-fourth-grade school in Laurel.

During his time, Middleton said Laurel started full-time kindergarten even before the state adopted it. The district also created grade-level schools (first-second grade in one building, third-fourth in another) to make education more equal citywide, and won community approval to build a 600-student middle school.

Middleton, who said student achievement was his No. 1 focus, was asked at the afternoon reception about student test scores in Laurel. During his tenure, math and reading scores jumped 21 points or more in the elementary schools, and reading jumped 18 points in the high school. But high school math scores slipped and the graduation rate fell from 84 to 77 percent. Middleton said the school staff was concerned, too, and so adopted a new math curriculum, which raised test scores.

Warford said though he has lived in Florida and Oregon, he has “been in love” with Bozeman over 40 years, got his marriage license here and his daughter was born here. He said he would really love to be part of this community and the school’s fine education team. In his current job, speaking and training school staffs, he traveled 150 days last year and visited some of the toughest, poorest, most struggling schools in New York and Los Angeles.

Warford said he would follow the Bozeman district’s “excellent” long-range strategic plan. He described himself as a “technology geek,” passionate about increasing the level of technology for students and teachers.

His most memorable accomplishments, Warford said, were being named his high school’s teacher of the year three times and making a different in students’ lives. His greatest disappointment, Warford said, was that he couldn’t persuade Florida’s lawmakers and governor that the state’s high-stakes testing – which labels public schools with grades from A to F – should be based on more than just one or two test scores.

Warford said working as a lobbyist for the Florida Association of School Administrators for five years was tough. He quipped that one reason he knew it was time to leave was “when a third-grade class looks more mature than your legislature.”

At the reception, Warford was asked about his time at the Florida Department of Education, when the state touted remarkable gains in student test scores. A Boston College researcher, Walter Haney, wrote an analysis contending the Florida miracle was a “Florida fraud,” and that the increase in fourth-graders’ scores was due to the state’s new policy of flunking third-graders who didn’t test well.

Warford responded that while holding third-graders back did “inflate” test scores some, “there’s no question we made gains” in student achievement.

Warford said the Bozeman School District is very good but could become a model of a 21st century school and achieve “the next level of excellence.”