REED CITY — Redford Union Schools superintendent Ron Stoneman and Reed City Middle School principal Tim Webster have emerged as the two finalists in Reed City Area Public Schools' superintendent search.

The board of education completed the second half of interviews with its top six candidates for the position on Thursday, followed by a vote on the finalists. Board members cast votes for their top two or three favorite candidates, and Stoneman and Webster received the most votes.

They beat out Ryle Kiser, superintendent of Peck Community Schools; and Catherine Cost, assistant superintendent of Farmington Public Schools — who both interviewed Wednesday — as well as Tony Habra, superintendent of Rudyard Area Schools; and Mandy Stewart, a high school principal for Lincoln Consolidated Schools — who both interviewed Thursday.

Stoneman and Webster will go before the board again today for a second interview, with Stoneman starting at 4 p.m. and Webster following at 5:45 p.m.; interviews will take place in the Central Office Building. The board will announce its top finalist after today's interviews, with plans for a visit to the candidate's home district next week before offering a contract at the June 17 board meeting.

"The questions are going to be more specific about each candidate now that we know who they are," board member Jim Dawson said of today's second interviews.

In reviewing the candidates, board members listed strengths and weaknesses of each. Among Stoneman's strengths, they noted he is an "out-of-the-box thinker," which compliments his background in special education, curriculum, finances and early education. They also appreciated his confidence and willingness to form personal relationships with those around him.

"We got really frank at the end of the interview," said board president Dan Boyer. "I thought it went well."

Redford Union Schools is a district of 2,943 students, located outside Detroit. Stoneman noted the difficult situation the district faced when he became superintendent three years ago — from a financial standpoint as well as in relationships with staff and a high rate of transience in the community. Prior to working at Redford Union, Stoneman was superintendent of Dansville Schools and Walkerville Public Schools.

He touted his ability to build a positive culture within a school district, noting it starts with trust established through accessibility, visibility and approachability.

"There's brilliant people in this industry, and I feel people need to have room to do the job they're paid to do. It's about building relationships and having responsibility to respect the people who are doing this," Stoneman said. "It's about gaining the engagement of all stakeholders. We need to value education like we did in the past. We have to earn that value by being responsible with our funding and showing results."

Stoneman also discussed the use of data as a mirror for educators to more clearly see the teaching strategies they use and how well they work. He has a bachelor's degree from Grand Valley State University as well as a master's degree in educational leadership. He earned his teaching certificate from Aquinas College.

One of the top priorities the board is looking for in its next superintendent is the person's willingness to invest in the community.

"One of the things we have to get out of this is not just a superintendent but a community member," Boyer said.

In that respect, Webster has the advantage, with his 17 years of experience in the district.

"He's a community member. He's well-liked and trusted," said board member Kathy Yost.

Webster's reputation and integrity would help him as superintendent, board members agreed. They also appreciated his team approach to leadership and noted the positive dynamic among his middle school staff.

While Webster's Reed City background helped him in some ways, board members also said it changed the dynamic of the interview compared to their questioning of other candidates. In some cases, it was more difficult to get in-depth responses to questions they raised because there was an assumption they already knew how Webster would answer.

Before selecting Stoneman and Webster to advance in the interview process, the board also heard from Habra and Stewart.

Since 2010, Habra has led Rudyard Area Schools, a district in the Upper Peninsula with 765 students. Prior to that, he was a principal for six years.

Habra said he would focus on improving achievement scores at RCAPS if chosen as superintendent. The board liked his approach to budgeting, but they did not agree with his educational philosophy as summarized during the interview.

"The general thought is we step out there and say, what are we going to cut? That's really backwards," Habra said of his budgeting approach. "The questions we ask are what makes us who we are? What can we not afford to lose? That lets us know where we can't cut."

Habra has a bachelor's degree in social studies from the University of Arizona and master's degrees in education administration and guidance counseling from the University of Phoenix.

Following Habra was Stewart, who impressed the board with her positivity and strong understanding of the educational process and curriculum. However, board members thought she would be better as a principal than superintendent given her experience.

Stewart has been a principal at Lincoln Consolidated Schools in different capacities for the past three years. She is earning a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction and educational sociology from Wayne State University. She also has a Master of Arts in Teaching and a bachelor's in political science and English.

She described herself as a collaborative leader and shared examples of programs at her school that address the link between student behavior and academic performance.

"There needs to be an agreement on what best practice is," she said. "The focus of education needs to continue to be on best practices, curriculum and good instruction. Where we're getting off in public education is the emphasis on standardized assessments."