Just as School Committee members in Lexington were working to negotiate a new contract with Superintendent Paul Ash, the often-controversial administrator announced last week that he will be leaving next year to join a national consulting firm.
Ash, who is 64 years old and has been the Lexington school district’s superintendent since July 2005, said Tuesday that after June 2015 he will be working full-time as a consultant for the Leadership and Learning Center, which is based in Colorado.
“I love this place,” Ash said of Lexington. “It’s a great town. It’s very supportive of education.” He added, however, “This opportunity came along and I decided to take it.”
His decision comes on the heels of a much-debated 3-2 vote by the School Committee in mid-December to begin negotiating a new contract with Ash, and just days before Monday’s town election decides a two-person race for a School Committee seat.
Ash has earned high marks from some in Lexington for bringing the school district’s finances into a favorable position while maintaining the strong academic performance of its students. But he has also been criticized for perceived problems with transparency and teacher morale.
A number of parents complained when the School Committee extended his contract in 2011, and some of the complaints arose again when the committee voted in December to negotiate a new contract.
Ash’s current agreement with the district runs through June 2015. The terms state that 18 months before the contract ends — by Jan. 1, 2014 — either the School Committee or Ash could request a change to it. If neither party acted, the contract would automatically be extended by a year.
But in December, Ash said he wanted a new three-year contract, and the School Committee voted on Dec. 19 to enter negotiations with him.
The superintendent said the debate about his contract didn’t contribute to his decision to leave. He said on Wednesday that he had signed a contract with the consulting firm the previous week, and decided to announce his decision before the election because he felt it would have been disingenuous to continue with the negotiations.
Monday’s ballot includes a race between incumbent School Committee member Bonnie Brodner, who cast one of the three votes to draft a new contract with Ash, and Judith Crocker, a longtime resident who has been active in school and community causes.
When asked whether she would support negotiating a contract with Ash if she’s elected, Crocker said she would like to have all of the information available to the School Committee before deciding. But Crocker did say she has concerns, including the amount he is paid. Ash will earn a base salary of $279,860 in the final year of his contract.
“He definitely has his strengths, but I definitely see room for improvement,” she said.
School Committee chairwoman Margaret Coppe said the board had several meetings with Ash about extending his contract before he announced his decision Tuesday.
“I’m very happy for him,” said Coppe, who praised Ash’s financial and academic leadership in the school district. “I’m glad we’ve had him for as many years as we did. He’s done an excellent job.”
School Committee member Jessie Steigerwald, one of the two members who voted against negotiating a new contract with Ash, said she thinks Ash has made valuable contributions to the district, but she believes there are areas where he needed to show improvement, such as in communicating with the public and with her board.
“My preference was to say: ‘We appreciate what you’ve done; when this contract is over, we’re going to look forward to a search process to find the next superintendent to take the district to the next level,’ ” Steigerwald said.
Ash said the chance to join the consulting firm arose after he coauthored a book, “School Systems That Learn: Improving Professional Practice, Overcoming Limitations, and Diffusing Innovation,” which was published in 2012.
He said he’s been asked to deliver talks on the book and his views on educational issues, and one thing led to another before he was offered the job at the Leadership and Learning Center.
Looking back on his tenure in Lexington, Ash said he’s proud of the school district’s high SAT and MCAS scores, and the work the district has done to close achievement gaps for students of color, special education students, and low-income students.
He said he’s particularly proud of the outcome in a lawsuit filed by two sets of parents, David and Tonia Parker and Joseph and Robin Wirthlin, against the school system over the inclusion of a book that discussed gay families on a reading list for students. The parents said that the school system violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion by teaching their children about same-sex couples.
When a federal appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, the parents appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in 2008.
The controversy made Lexington a lightning rod in the national media, and Ash defended the school system’s policy of teaching diversity. He said he received death threats at the time and had police protection at his home.
“It was a tough chapter in my life, but I felt we were fighting for civil rights,” he said.
School Committee member Mary Ann Stewart said Ash stood strong during the court case, and has never been afraid of criticism or engaging people with different views.brock.parker@ globe.com.