The search for a new superintendent to lead the 7,000-student Bozeman School District narrowed Wednesday to three finalists, after a fourth failed to show.

Bozeman School Board trustees interviewed two candidates from larger out-of-state school districts and one from a smaller Montana district.

The three finalists are Sarah Brown, 54, who recently resigned as human resources director of the 48,000-student Manatee County School District in Florida; Bob Connors, 56, current superintendent of the 842-student Glasgow School District in northeast Montana; and Christopher Hines, 58, deputy superintendent of the 63,000-student Conroe School District in Texas.

Richard Schroeder, a former Illinois school administrator now working for a book publisher, was a no-show. Debra Silk of the Montana School Boards Association, who is helping with the search, said she didn’t know why.

No one from within the Bozeman School District applied, said Pat Strauss, human resources director.

“It’s a very challenging job,” he said.

The school board held an hour-long formal interview with each finalist at Bozeman High, asking a set list of questions about leadership styles, educating students and building community trust. Before that, finalists met informally at a reception with about 30 teachers, parents, community members and reporters.

Sarah Brown, who earned her undergraduate degree at Montana State University, told the board she believes in “collaboration, communication and transparency.” She said she’d like to talk privately with trustees about some issues, but after conferring with Andy Willett, school board chair, and Silk, she instead spoke publicly.

Brown defended her four-year record in Manatee County schools. The Bradenton Herald of Florida reported Tuesday on a critical report by a school superintendents association, which found that schools often viewed her human resources department as an “impediment.”

Brown said the report is “full of misleading information … not accurate … (and) ill-intended.” She said she had increased the teacher hiring rate in three years by 26%, increased teacher retention 21%, gotten a school benefits system that was $9 million in the red back into surplus, and started job fairs that successfully hired more than 500 teachers. Brown said the critical report had been sought by an administrator who was not her friend and who had been investigated by the Florida Department of Education for seven counts of unethical behavior.

Though most of her experience has been in human resources and in larger districts, including the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Brown said that she had worked closely with teachers and administrators on such issues as turning around failing schools, and she considers Bozeman “my community.”

“Bozeman is on a wonderful path right now and my job would be to make sure we stay that way,” Brown said.

Bob Connors, a former University of Montana quarterback, was asked by a reporter about the cancer he has been fighting for years. He said in 2002 he had skin cancer that spread into his shoulder, causing him to lose the use of his left arm. Doctors were “done with me,” he said. What saved him was an experimental immunotherapy drug trial in Portland, Oregon.

“I had 3% chance of survival,” Connors said. Now, “I’m completely cancer free.”

He said he’s proud of Glasgow schools starting to adopt the professional learning community (PLC) model that promotes teachers collaborating on better ways to teach, and proud of passing an $18 million building bond. Bozeman may be a bigger school district than Glasgow, he said, but “the situations are the same.”

Christopher Hines, in education 36 years, has held for eight years one of the top jobs in a growing school district in the Houston area. Hines said the Bozeman job is “very attractive” because the community seems forward thinking and he’s looking for new challenges.

Hines, who described himself as pragmatic and soft-spoken, said he is “a big believer in tracking data” such as test scores to improve student achievement. He said he’s not familiar with Montana school policies and laws, but “I’m a pretty quick learner.”

Asked about Bozeman’s transition to two high schools, he said the district has done a good job creating a “culture of excellence” for both schools.

The Bozeman School Board plans to hold a special meeting June 18 to vote on either selecting one of the three finalists, or choosing an interim superintendent for next school year and conducting a new search.

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

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.