The Laurel School District board has narrowed its list of superintendent candidates to five applicants, it announced on Wednesday.

The district began its search late last year after Superintendent Josh Middleton, who has led the district since 2003, announced he would leave in June.

The five men are Tim Bronk, school superintendent in Darby; Keith Campbell, assistant superintendent and high school principal in the Hardin School District; Robert Connors, junior high school principal in the Stevensville Public School District; Glenn Hageman, superintendent of Glasgow Public Schools; and Troy Zickefoose, principal of Graff Elementary in Laurel.

"We feel really good about all of them," said Ken Kallem, chairman of the Laurel school board.

In all, the district had 16 people apply for the job. Kallem said a few were from out of state. He said no one from Billings School District 2 applied.

"We had a strong 16 candidates," he said.

With the finalists named, the board will hold interviews on March 10 and 11. A community forum will also be planned that weekend to give Laurel residents a chance to meet the applicants.

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Kallem said the hope is to have a new superintendent named by the end of March.

It's a critical time for Laurel. 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's tax base comes from CHS. As the company continues to protest its property tax, the Laurel School District will struggle to balance its budget. County tax officials believe it will be another four years before the courts resolve the protest.

The district will need someone who understands school finance and can tackle the shortfalls facing the district. Both Kallem and Middleton have been quick to point out they don't fault CHS' tax protest.

Middleton decided to leave the district last year. He's been working on his doctorate in education from Montana State University and will be awarded the degree in May.

With that in place, he felt the time was right to move on to a new challenge. He 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.

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.