Experience, a passion for kids and a sense of humor have helped Brian Ayers to win the principal’s job at Chief Joseph Middle School.

The Bozeman School Board voted 7-0 Thursday to accept Superintendent Kirk Miller’s recommendation to promote Ayers, assistant principal for the last five years, to succeed Principal Diane Cashell, who is retiring.

“I’m just honored and very excited,” Ayers, 43, said after the vote. He joked that he has already started “losing sleep.”

Miller said Ayers was the “resounding” pick for both the 14-member committee that considered all applicants, the executive council that interviewed four finalists and the 50 people who attended an open house for finalists.

Ayers stood out because of his passion, his experience in middle school, and the direction he wants to take the school in the future, Miller said.

“We are very fortunate to have you,” School Board Chair Denise Hayman said.

Ayers told School Board trustees he doesn’t take over officially until July 1, but Cashell had already started setting the transition in motion. “I’m hoping she shows up Monday,” he quipped.

Ayers said he already knows the nearly 600 kids at Chief Joseph and their families, has already built relationships with many people and considers the school “my home away from home.”

“It’s a great school, a great community,” he said.

Ayers is popular at CJMS, even though his job as assistant principal put him in charge of student discipline. He said he learned a lot from Joe Moriarty, assistant principal at Sacajawea Middle School, former Bozeman High Principal Godfrey Saunders and Cashell.

“They taught me discipline with dignity is critical,” Ayers said. “I am a firm believer in holding students accountable, but you can’t lose sight of the person. I want students to walk out of my office knowing ‘He cares about me.’ We teach behavior, we don’t punish it. I love my job.”

Ayers said he graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in education and later earned a master’s from Montana State University. He delayed for a year his plan to pursue a doctorate at MSU when the principal’s job came open.

His 20-year teaching career began at the Hays-Lodge Pole School on the Fort Belknap Reservation, working on a federal grant to develop bilingual curriculum and help tribal elders preserve the culture of their Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people.

Ayers worked for nine years at Fremont High School in St. Anthony, Idaho, and then returned to the Bozeman area, where his wife, Jill Westra, had grown up in the local Dutch community. He taught social studies at Bozeman High School for five years before becoming assistant principal at Chief Joseph. His wife teaches and coaches volleyball at Manhattan Christian School. They have three children.

Ayers’ new salary will be $91,272, based on a formula that considers the school size and level of responsibility, number of days worked, experience and education, said Steve Johnson, assistant superintendent.

One of Ayers’ tasks as principal will be to choose a new assistant principal, which he said will be “a team decision” made with Chief Joseph’s “experienced, exceptional” teaching staff.

School Board trustees joked that he needs “a new wing man.”

“As long as it’s not a wing nut,” Hayman said and laughed.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com.

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