Rob Watson

Bozeman Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson presents to the Chamber of Commerce on the second high school bond in this Chronicle file photo.

The Bozeman School Board on Monday launched a search with an aggressive timeline to replace departing Superintendent Rob Watson and also hired Mark Ator of Colstrip as Bozeman’s new activities and athletics director.

School board trustees voted 8-0 to hire the Montana School Boards Association for $7,500 to coordinate a national search for a new superintendent. They tentatively set a May 17 deadline for applications, with a goal of hiring a new superintendent June 10.

Watson, leader of the 7,000-student Bozeman public schools for the past seven years, was offered and accepted the superintendent’s job of the 9,000-student Missoula County Public Schools last Thursday. He and the Missoula board are still in contract negotiations. If they reach agreement, he would start there July 1.

Trustee Douglas Fischer questioned whether three weeks is enough time for a national search.

“It is tight,” Chair Andy Willett said after the meeting. Bozeman trustees might extend the deadline another week, he said.

Another backup possibility would be to hire one of Bozeman’s current administrators as interim superintendent for a year to allow more time for the search for a permanent superintendent. The problem with that idea is, he said, “We like them all where they’re at.”

“It’s going to have to be a good fit, and if we don’t find a good fit we’ll take a year to hire someone,” Willett said.

He said Watson will leave “big shoes to fill” and joked that, “We got ‘Robbed’ by Missoula.’”

Missoula was offering around $180,000, while Bozeman’s base pay was slightly over $150,000. Willett said Bozeman is probably going to have to offer a salary similar to Missoula’s to be competitive.

Asked why Bozeman trustees didn’t just offer Watson more money to stay, after a recent survey concluded he was earning about $9,000 less than his peers, Willett said, “It really wasn’t about the money” for Watson, who said he was interested in the new challenges of leading a larger school district.

Willett said he considers Watson a friend, a great superintendent and “wonderful person. He left us in a great spot. We’re not scrambling, even though we’re in transition to a new high school. We’ve got so many things in the right spot – that’s why you don’t feel panic with the board right now.”

Trustees also voted 8-0 to hire Ator, Colstrip High School principal and activities director, to replace retiring AD Jerry Reisig.

Ator has 20 years experience directing activities and athletics in Colstrip and has been named Montana activities director of the year, Watson said.

Watson recommended Ator out of the six finalists who came for interviews. He said Ator’s long experience and good working relations with the MTSBA will be valuable when Bozeman’s second high school opens in fall 2020.

Ator said he was “truly excited about the opportunity” and would work to make sure there’s “equity between the two schools.”

Pat Strauss, Bozeman schools human resources director, called the schedule outlined for the superintendent search aggressive. He said the Bozeman School District and MTSBA would post the opening on their own websites Tuesday. Ads will also be posted on websites of the state Office of Public Instruction, School Administrators of Montana and national superintendent organizations.

Strauss recommending using the MTSBA, rather than taking weeks to interview and hire headhunting consultants, because it would save time and money.

MTSBA will collect applications, screen candidates, schedule interviews, do reference and criminal background checks and help conduct interviews.

“I wish Rob weren’t leaving us,” Trustee Heide Arneson said, but given that he is, “this is the best course of action.”

When Watson, then Bozeman High principal, was hired as superintendent in 2012, the School Board had an additional month to search, said Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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