Laurel School District Superintendent Josh Middleton will receive his doctorate of education in May and so is looking to his next challenge.
"I'm not sure what's next," he said.
Middleton has applied for superintendent jobs at a half-dozen school districts across the country — from Whitefish on the western side of the state to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Bellingham, Wash.
Laurel district trustees met with representatives from the Montana School Board Association earlier this week to map out their search for a new superintendent.
The district will advertise the opening this month. Trustees hope to line up a good list of candidates by January or early February. They would then schedule interviews for mid- or late March, said Ken Kallem, board president.
He said he believes the district will be able to find the right replacement.
"Laurel is a desired location," he said.
One of the bigger issues facing whoever takes over for Middleton is Laurel's financial troubles. The district is operating with a $1.5 million hole in its budget after CHS Inc., which owns the oil refinery in town, began protesting its taxes with the state last year.
Roughly 50 percent of the town tax base comes from CHS. As the company continues to protest its property tax, the Laurel School District will continue to struggle to balance its budget. County tax officials believe it will be another four years before the courts resolve the protest.
"We're going to need somebody who has some experience," Kallem said.
The district will need someone who understands school finance well and can tackle the shortfalls facing the district. Both Kallem and Middleton are quick to point out they don't fault CHS' decision to protest its taxes and wish the company success.
The refinery is vital to the economic health of the community, Kallem said. It's in everyone's best interest to have CHS in town.
In terms of academics, Middleton leaves the district in good shape, Kallem said.
"He's definitely leaving the district in a better place than he found it," he said. "Certainly we'll miss him."
Reading and math scores are up, and the district has made some valuable partnerships under Middleton's leadership that have helped enrich the education of its students, Kallem said.
"We're in a good place," he said.
Middleton, with his doctorate from Montana State University in hand, is eager to find what's next in his career.
"I'm ready to take that next step and the challenges that go along with that," he said.