Brian Ayers, a longtime Manhattan resident and current principal of Chief Joseph Middle School in Bozeman, will be the next superintendent of Manhattan schools.

School Board Chairman Rob Brownell said Ayers emerged as the No. 1 choice after interviews with four finalists for the position last week. The board made its decision official on Tuesday.

“We liked his energy and his knowledge of the area,” Brownell said. “You can tell that he’s very knowledgeable in the educational process, and he really cares about the kids. That’s huge for an administrator in a school of our size.”

Jeff Blessum, who has led the district since former Superintendent Scott Chauvet resigned abruptly in June, agreed with the board’s assessment.

“His background and experience seemed to fit the Manhattan Public Schools’ needs best,” he said. “His answers were the most student-centered.”

For his part, Ayers said Manhattan’s focus on student-centered programs was one reason he sought the job.

“They want their school to provide the best possible opportunities for kids, and everything is centered on that,” he said Wednesday. “I really respect the core values of that district. They are so strong, and it’s very easy to feel.” 

Ayers’ familiarity with Manhattan’s community values stem from his long residency in town. A native of Florida, he came West with his wife Jill in 1992.

“We wanted to find a teaching job together and find jobs closer to her family in Manhattan,” he said. 

Ayer’s taught for nine years at a high school in St. Anthony, Idaho – a community he describes as very similar to Manhattan – and for a year in Fort Belknap before accepting a teaching position at Bozeman High School 18 years ago. That’s when he and his family settled in Manhattan. Jill Ayers is a teacher at Manhattan Christian.

After moving to Manhattan, Ayers taught history and government and coached football for five years at Bozeman High, then moved into administration as assistant principal at Chief Joseph Middle School. Five years later he became principal, a position he has held for eight years.

Ayers, 51, viewed a superintendent’s position as the “next logical place to grow” professionally, but he said it would have taken something powerful to lure him away from the Gallatin Valley. The opening in Manhattan provided the opportunity for professional growth he was seeking right at home.

“The community has tremendous pride in their school, and just living in that community, it’s very noticeable,” he said. “Serving as superintendent will allow me to grow in a growing district.” 

Ayers predicts his greatest personal challenge will be saying goodbye to his staff and central office colleagues in Bozeman, while the greatest professional challenge will be mounting a “steep learning curve” in Manhattan. He said Blessum, who will continue his work with the School Administrators of Montana, has offered his assistance while he makes the transition. He also said he won’t hesitate to reach across the valley and ask advice from his contacts in Bozeman.

Brownell said last-minute contract and salary details are still being finalized, but the compensation advertised for the job was $100,000-$110,000, dependent on experience.

The district hired a law firm in Missoula to conduct the candidate search, and narrowed the pool to four finalists, all from Montana. Last week they were questioned by teachers and administrators, spoke with community members during informal meet-and-greets, and were interviewed by the school board in public sessions.