The Board of Education voted Monday night to

approve Melissa Paolini-Kay as the new principal of Bedford Middle School starting in July.

Paolini-Kay, the principal of Coleytown Elementary School since 2006, will become the fourth principal in as many years at Bedford, a school that last September was named a national "Blue Ribbon" award winner. She will replace the current interim principal there, Dr. Cary Bell, who was hired early last summer when the previous principal, Carol Stephens-Klipp, resigned just one year into her tenure.

For Paolini-Kay, the new job will bring a pay increase to $155,696, up from the $151,542 she was slated to earn at Coleytown Elementary next year, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Elliott Landon.

Bell, as interim principal, has been earning around $500 per working day, according to Landon. He was one of five finalists for the permanent spot -- and the sole candidate from Westport other than Paolini-Kay.

Recently, many parents have given vocal backing to his candidacy.

But on May 3, Landon, in a one-page letter to the Board of Education, recommended Paolini-Kay for the job. The decision, he wrote, was made "with enthusiasm following a comprehensive search that sought candidates from all parts of the country."

He explained on Monday that the process began with an outside consulting firm bringing a pool of six finalists to an advisory committee made up of teachers, parents and administrators by late 2009. Committee members then interviewed and debated the merits of the finalists. While there were disagreements between committee members, Landon said, the final decision was made by him.

Asked Tuesday morning, Landon said that salaries, benefits and pensions were "absolutely not a factor" in the decision-making process -- that it was based solely on "training and experience." He added that, if Bell were chosen, he would have earned the same salary that Paolini-Kay will get.

Before Monday night's vote, residents had their final chance to comment on Landon's pick. Three parents of Bedford students and one eighth grader there urged the board to postpone the vote and reconsider Bell's candidacy, while one parent spoke in Paolini-Kay's favor.

Speaking first, former PTA President Brett Aronow called the decision "short-sighted." The selection committee did not consider the impact Bell has had on Bedford over the past 10 months, she said, and it was missing an "incredible opportunity" by not retaining him. Unless the committee's consensus was that Bell's candidacy was "egregious," she added, then it had failed.

Baxter Stein, a Bedford eighth grader, read from a one-page statement that touted Bell's engaging style at Bedford. "I've interacted more with him [in one year] than with my elementary school principal and the last two BMS principals combined," Baxter said.

Though he'll soon be off to high school, Stein said he felt that younger students at Bedford would be "missing out" if his principal leaves. He told of how Bell recently joined his friends and him at their lunch table. "How many principals want to eat with their students?" he asked, before flipping the question. "And how many eighth graders want to eat with their principal?"

Speaking next, Susan Jacobson turned to Paolini-Kay, who was sitting in the front row, and assured her that parent support for Bell had nothing to do with her work as Coleytown Elementary principal. Jacobson said that Bedford parents would support Paolini-Kay if she were voted in. But Jacobson then challenged the decision-making process, calling it "veiled in secrecy," lacking in parent involvement, and perhaps hostile.

"[During the process], I've been told to rescind letters to the editor and to not speak to reporters," she said. "All I ask for is more dialogue." (Note: Jacobson wrote an open letter to Landon that was published in this paper on Friday.)

Speaking last, Ginny McGovern, the wife of Board of Education member Michael McGovern, said she "couldn't be more impressed with [Paolini-Kay's] leadership qualities" at Coleytown Elementary. She said Paolini-Kay weaves social skills -- "respect, inclusion and how to celebrate differences" -- into class-work and that she wanted the board to vote Paulini-Kay in as the new principal at Bedford.

There was little deliberation from the board before the vote. Mark Mathias, who has a child at Bedford and one entering kindergarten next fall, said he's been impressed with Bell this year, but that he trusted the decision making process. Sometimes, he said, change can be good. Elaine Whitney echoed Mathias's statement. Then the board voted unanimously to approve Landon's pick.

Afterwards, Paolini-Kay thanked the board and Landon. "I will greatly miss Coleytown Elementary," she said. "It's been a pleasure there these last four years, but I'm incredibly excited to build upon this excellent middle school program."

According to Westport News archives, Paolini-Kay served as assistant principal of Stratford Academy, a kindergarten through grade-two magnet school in Stratford, before taking the helm of Coleytown in fall 2006. Before that, she was assistant principal of West Elementary School in New Canaan and a teacher at Long Lots Elementary for 10 years.