Billings school trustees selected Ross Kasun, a superintendent from New Jersey, as the person to take Billings schools “to the next level.”
Trustees voted 6-2 to hire Kasun; he still needs to negotiate a contract and accept the job. He was one of three finalists to replace retiring superintendent Terry Bouck.
In Kasun, trustees opted for a change agent — a term that was used several times in references' comments that trustees reviewed.
His New Jersey district, Freehold Township, went through an extensive overhaul that emphasized the use of technology to help students learn at their own pace, and he pitched a vision of turning Billings into a “lighthouse district” that could be a model for others.
"Things change, and we have to move to the next level," said trustee Janna Hafer. "There are things we need to address. I think he rises to the top."
Trustees selected Greg Upham, Helena's assistant superintendent, as a unanimous second choice if Kasun does not take the job.
Each finalist also met with principals and district administrators. Overall, that group preferred Upham, according to district executive director of human resources Katie Nordstrom. But they also said they’d work with any three of the candidates.
Before beginning to discuss candidates, trustees agreed that they would stand behind the board's selection no matter their individual vote.
Gordon Klasna and Mike Leo dissented, and Tanya Ludwig abstained from voting because she wasn't present for all the interviews. After the vote, Klasna emphasized that he would stand behind Kasun going forward.
At Freehold, Kasun took on major shifts in the district's grading structure and use of technology. He was named New Jersey's 2017 superintendent of the year, and he has repeatedly touted how the award directed attention in the form of grants and pilot projects toward his district.
He's penned articles and has a TED Talk about the need to get past a "factory model" for schools and dump concepts like required seat time.
Board chairwoman Greta Besch Moen talked about the board's inclusion of the term "risk taker" in their advertisements for what they were looking for in a superintendent.
"We kind of grappled with that," she said. "Was that too much?"
During interviews, both Upham and finalist Rebecca Salato, an education consultant from California, noted the School District 2 didn't seem to be looking for drastic change. That stood in contrast to Kasun's pitch, trustee Joe Raffiani noted.
"We had two candidates who said, 'I'm not here to change things, I'm just here to tweak things and keep improving.' That's not a bad thing," he said.
But he said that Kasun was "kind of the only one that got me excited."
He cited Kasun's championing of "showcasing" his New Jersey district, and believed that Kasun could "do that in spades" in Billings.
Raffiani also said that he didn't think Kasun, despite the "change agent" reputation, would try to upend SD2.
"I don't get the sense that Dr. Kasun's going to ignore our strategic plan because he's got a vision that he's going to impose on us," he said.
Trustee Russ Hall, who made the original motion to select Kasun, said that while trustees have emphasized that they're looking for the next Bouck, that doesn't mean they're looking for a carbon copy.
Bouck moved the district forward, he said. "We are looking for the next person to take us farther than where we are now."
Klasna expressed concerns about Kasun's experience working with career and technical education, which is a major focus for the district, about his experience lobbying a state legislature, and about specific initiatives SD2 is already focusing on.
Leo shared the career and technical education concerns, and said that he didn't find Kasun's answers in his finalist interview on trauma informed care and professional learning communities satisfactory. Ludwig also advocated for Upham, citing his Montana-specific experience, though she abstained from voting.
Besch Moen said that she felt like Kasun's communication skills could overcome a lack of specific legislative experience, citing his TED Talk and experience handling new projects.
"He's done it in his district," she said. "He wants to do it in this district."
Before Kasun becomes SD2's next superintendent, he needs to pass a background check and negotiate a contract with the district. According to Freehold Township's budget, Kasun made a salary of $165,000 for the 2016-17 school year. Current superintendent Terry Bouck makes about $171,000, according to his most recent contract extension.