After two dead-end searches and several more months of looking, the Mercer Island School District finally appears close to choosing a new...

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After two dead-end searches and several more months of looking, the Mercer Island School District finally appears close to choosing a new principal for its only high school.

Schools Superintendent Cyndi Simms is considering three finalists, whose names she declined to release. She said she expects to name a new leader for the 1,400-student school by the end of the month.

“We’ve done a lot of work to get here,” Simms said. “I’m hopeful and very excited by the candidates.”

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The district’s screening committees gave two of the finalists their unanimous support. Both men are longtime principals, working at similarly sized high schools in other states.

It has been a long process, stretching over a year and a half.

The latest round of interviews involved 36 people on two screening committees. Candidates were judged on 11 qualities, from instructional ability to sense of humor.

A retired administrator, Kathy Siddoway, has served as the high school’s interim principal this year, as the district pushed through its final search.

“It’s like the birth of an elephant,” said Pat Braman, the School Board president.

But Braman praised the process for including so many perspectives, from students to teachers to parents.

Mercer Island High School is one of the highest-achieving schools in the state. But it often has been at the center of district controversies over how much rigor is enough. Some parents say the school needs to better challenge students, while others say struggling students are being left behind.

The district began a national search for a principal in fall 2003, shortly after Principal Paul Highsmith announced his retirement. A small pool of candidates applied, and last March the first round of interviews began.

Each of those four finalists was interviewed by the superintendent and an administrative team made up of parents, teachers and students from the high school.

But in the end, the teams couldn’t agree on a finalist. So a second search began in June, and again it ended without agreement.

At the time, the district still was recovering from instability: high administrative turnover, conflict on the School Board, differing opinions on the district’s mission. More than 75 people attended a spring conflict-resolution workshop designed to bring groups to some kind of understanding.

The third principal search began in the winter, with the help of a recruiting firm and a former executive of the Washington Association of School Principals. This time, 47 candidates applied.

“The district looks much more attractive than it did a year ago,” said Mike Radow, a social-studies teacher who served on the school’s interview team. “We’re more stable, we’re a little further away from the conflict.”

Radow, the vice president of the Mercer Island Education Association, described the latest search as smooth. The interview teams had little trouble recommending two finalists, he said. They recommended both unanimously; the recommendation of the third finalist was not unanimous.

“It was nice to be a part of a productive, noncontentious process,” Radow said. “It was refreshing and welcome.”

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com