By Katina Caraganis
SHIRLEY -- The Ayer Shirley Regional School District will likely name its new superintendent of schools as early as next week after it kicked off its first of four finalist interviews Tuesday night at the middle school.
Current Superintendent Carl Mock has announced he will retire June 30 when his contract expires.
The School Committee's first interview was with Ned Pratt, director of pupil personnel services for the Leominster Public Schools.
Each candidate will spend the day of his or her interview within the district, meeting staff, principals and students before being interviewed at night.
Pratt said he is encouraged by what he saw and said he is pleased that the district has students engaged in the screening process for the new superintendent.
"As a student, I learned the important of having a voice," he said. "I feel like that's kind of squashed now. I believe in being in the schools and seeing them outside of school as well. The bottom line is, we serve them."
He said his current job in Leominster requires him to constantly work with a number of people and offices.
Pratt called bringing together Ayer and Shirley into one district "thoughtful" and "risk-taking," and saw the positives almost immediately.
"What I saw today is, you have a lot of grass-roots things going on here," he said. "You have an absolutely phenomenal staff here."
He said he won't always know the answer to everything but is good at bringing people together to collectively solve a problem and generate solutions.
"I will not be able to come in and solve all your problems, but I can come in and bring people together and work together as a group to solve problems," he said.
Ultimately, Pratt said, solving difficult problems is all about thinking outside the box and using creative solutions to keep critical programming in the schools.
"It's not enough to serve some of the students. We need to support all the students," he said. "We need to do that in a way that makes sense to all of them. We need to be reaching out to the community and the chambers and rotary clubs to enhance relationships."
He said public education cannot "just sit back" and "say it's enough to continue to do what we are doing."
He said he does not want people to be afraid of sharing "crazy ideas" because it is often those ideas that bring about the change needed.
Pratt said he believes he and the School Committee should have a good relationship, and members should be telling him about issues facing their respective communities and what can be done to fix them within the school system.
"I believe disagreements bring out solutions," he said. "You're helping me and telling me how the operations are working. That's important. 'I think we can get out and make things happen. I want us to have good collaboration, but at the end of the day, it's all about the students."
Pratt, who has worked as a disc jockey in the past, said the arts and music are critical for students, as are athletics, and the district needs to take every opportunity to sustain those programs.
"We can never, ever abandon the arts for our students, and I will do everything I can as superintendent to not abandon the arts," he said. "To tell a student interested in the arts 'we don't have a program for you' is unacceptable for me. The arts won't be the first thing on the chopping block for me."
He said keeping such programs is all part of a vital education to supplement what students are learning in the classroom, adding that they must do their job as educators to "have a reason for kids to be here."
If selected, Pratt said he is willing to make a long-term commitment to the district.
"It's an awesome opportunity, and I am ready for it," he said. "You have a strong foundation, and I really believe we can do it. I'm energized by that. I'm committed to working as a team with the people at this table and the people in the two communities."
Pratt's interview was the first of four that will be conducted this week with the School Committee. The remaining candidates and their respective interviews times are:
* Dr. Christopher Casavant, business administrator for the Gardner Public Schools, today, 7 p.m.
* George King, assistant superintendent and principal of the Hale Middle School for the Nashoba Regional School District in Bolton, Thursday, 7 p.m.
* Mary Malone, assistant superintendent for Haverhill Public Schools, Friday, 7 p.m.
All the interviews will be held in the library at Ayer-Shirley Middle School.
The committee said a candidate will be selected by the end of the day Monday.
Follow Katina Caraganis on Tout and Twitter @kcaraganis.