Bozeman High School Principal Rob Watson said he felt excited Monday, right after the School Board voted unanimously to hire him as Bozeman’s next school superintendent.

“I feel honored, privileged they’ve chosen me,” said Watson, 42. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s also going to be a challenge. I hope I’m up to the challenge.”

School Board trustees voted 8-0 to select Watson to run the 5,800-student school district, with annual budgets totaling more than $58 million.

An audience of about 20 people, including teachers, principals and community members, applauded after the vote.

“He’s a really great fit for this community and school district,” School Board Chair Bruce Grubbs said. “I know Rob is going to do a fantastic job. He’s going to carry our district to a new level.”

Watson “hit the interview out of the park,” said Trustee Sue MacGrath, calling the principal poised, articulate, someone who clearly puts children at the center of decisions and someone who communicates well and really listens to people.

Trustee Denise Hayman, who led the search committee, said the district had great candidates. She praised finalists Josh Middleton, Billings’ assistant superintendent, and Jim Warford, an educational consultant with the International Center for Leadership in Education.

Hayman said Watson has brought change to Bozeman High, expanded options to prepare students for college and careers, helped struggling freshmen and sophomores, and runs an 1,800-student high school that’s as big as some Class C school districts. His interview was, she said, “very impressive, insightful and knowledgeable.”

Grubbs said he’d been leaning toward Watson, whom he respects a lot, and then “he blew us all away” at the interview. Grubbs said he had written a letter of recommendation when Watson sought the Helena superintendent’s job, adding, “I’m glad he didn’t get it.”

Vice Chair Wendy Tage said what Watson lacks in superintendent experience, he makes up for in knowledge of Bozeman’s schools and the district’s long-range plan.

Carol Townsend, Greater Gallatin United Way CEO, was one of 11 people chosen to write their reactions to finalists’ interview answers. She has worked with Watson on the Graduation Matters Gallatin campaign and said he understands the schools’ connection to the community.

“I’m really excited about the hire,” Townsend said.

“I’m happy – it’s a good choice,” said Tami Phillippi, teachers’ union president.

The next step, Grubbs said, is that he, Tage and administrative staff will negotiate a contract with Watson. The principal’s job pays around $106,000. The superintendent’s job was advertised at $130,000 to $150,000, depending on experience.

Current Superintendent Kirk Miller, who will retire June 30, said he expects to decide by the end of the week whether to fill the Bozeman High principal’s job by conducting a national search or promoting from within.

As Bozeman High principal for three years, Watson gained a reputation for remaining calm in the midst of chaos when work crews were finishing the school’s $36 million reconstruction.

During last week’s community reception, Watson debunked a rumor that he demands that students address him as “Dr. Watson.” He said he told students they can call him “Watson” or whatever they want, and the rumor that he gives students detention for not calling him “Doctor” was crazy.

“I’ve never given detention yet,” Watson said, “and if I did it would be for a real reason.”

Born in Miles City, Watson was raised for many years in Bozeman, where his mother, Joann, was a teacher. His dad, Gordon, was a soil scientist and conservationist with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. He attended Longfellow and Willson schools and then-Bozeman Junior High – now the renovated high school building where he works.

Watson graduated from C.M. Russell High in Great Falls, where he played football. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Montana State University and master’s from the University of Alaska, where he started his teaching career 19 years ago. He earned his doctorate in education from the University of Montana while working as a principal in Missoula, but said he still “bleeds blue and gold.”

His wife, Heidi, from Anaconda, is a nurse who works with special-needs students at Hyalite Elementary School. Their daughters, Emma, 9, and Isabel, 6, attend third grade and kindergarten there.

Bozeman High students have described Watson as less outgoing and accessible than former Principal Godfrey Saunders. However, staff members have described Watson as someone who’s fair, doesn’t avoid tough issues, does what he says he will do, and has integrity, intelligence and a sense of humor.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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