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Moorhead School Board narrows finalists to two

MOORHEAD - The Moorhead School Board grappled in vain on Wednesday to unite behind one of four finalists for the district's superintendent job.

Board members, some of whom had agonized over a decision after interviewing the candidates on Tuesday, narrowed the list to two front-runners: Lynne Kovash, Moorhead assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, and Kittson, Minn., Superintendent Bruce Jensen.

Board members distilled the decision to choosing between continuity and long-standing community ties, in the case of Kovash, and "new blood" and finance know-how, in the case of Jensen.

Both sets of assets, members pointed out, would come in handy if the district asks taxpayers for help with a shrinking reserve fund in the coming year.

On Tuesday, the board interviewed the two front-runners as well as Whitewater (Wis.) School District Administrator Leslie Steinhouse and Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop, Minn., Superintendent Stephen Malone.

The board hoped to pick a candidate in time to replace Superintendent Larry Nybladh, who starts as head of Grand Forks Public Schools on Tuesday. But members decided against rushing the decision and invited the two top candidates for a second interview at 9 a.m. Tuesday. They appointed Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak as interim superintendent until a new district leader takes over.

Board members talked up Jensen's knowledge of school finance and his track record in passing bond and levy referendums. In his interview, he spoke of inheriting a broke district with crumbling facilities and bringing about a $2.5 million fund balance and a renovated school.

Jensen's fans on the board dismissed concerns that he might have a tough transition from the 330-student Kittson district to the 5,330-student Moorhead Area Public Schools. In fact, Lisa Erickson said Jensen's experience in a small district made him "the guy who wore all the hats," an argument Jensen echoed in a Wednesday phone interview: "I think it's an advantage to come with a well-rounded administrative experience."

But board members leaning toward Kovash insisted her knowledge of the community and the esteem she commands locally might be more helpful in winning over voters than finance acumen.

"Lynne has established herself as a community leader, as somebody who's respected in the community," said board member Michael Siggerud. Kovash, who has spent her entire two-decade career in education in Moorhead, has also overseen special education and gifted and talented programs.

On the flipside, board members weighed the merit of enlisting an outsider to "stir up the pot," as Erickson put it: "I believe we need to keep bringing in new blood to generate more enthusiasm and more excitement."

Kovash sought to preempt such concerns during her interview with the board on Tuesday, when she spoke of planned innovations such as a community member team to offer input on financial decisions. "As my experience has shown, I'm always looking for new and fresh ideas," Kovash said Wednesday in an interview. "I look for ways to improve what we're doing."

As Wednesday morning's discussion hurtled toward a stalemate, Nybladh stepped in to encourage board members to give themselves more time, stressing the importance of consensus.

"It's gotten to the point when you've become a bit polarized," he said. "I don't think you should force it."