After more than two hours of back-to-back interviews, the Lafayette Parish School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to hire and begin contract negotiations with Don Aguillard as its next superintendent.

The decision came after interviews with Aguillard, who is superintendent of St. Mary Parish Schools, and candidate Francis Touchet Jr., a network leader for the Louisiana Department of Education who works with 12 school districts to help them improve student achievement.

The vote came without public discussion and after the board met privately in executive session to discuss the work history and professional competency of both candidates. Prior to the vote, two board members had voted against making the decision Wednesday: Justin Centanni and Jeremy Hidalgo.

During his interview, Aguillard told the board he could start mid-May, pending contract negotiations, and that he’d like to begin attending board meetings and be involved in budget discussions as soon as possible. The board has an estimated $16 million shortfall in its general fund for the 2015-16 school year and will begin general fund deliberations on May 12.

Aguillard suggested the board view the budget as an onion and consider peeling back the layers to review the personnel and programs that have been added in the past 10 years.

“Think about the extra positions you’ve funded and think about reducing that institution of the Lafayette Parish School System. … Keeping in mind, you’re trying to protect classroom teachers because they deliver instruction,” Aguillard said.

He said that in the past five to six years as many as 100 teaching positions have been cut to balance budget deficits in St. Mary Parish. While the decisions were difficult, he said, it was necessary. This upcoming school year, he said, St. Mary Parish faces a $4 million deficit.

During the interviews, he and Touchet separately fielded questions related to academic and fiscal oversight, such as how they’d improve low-performing schools and address discipline issues, as well as their experience with managing budgets and making decisions on how to mitigate deficits.

Until 2012, Touchet was principal of Erath High School, where the school received status as the highest-performing, nonselective, public high school in the state.

During his interview, Touchet touted his experience helping low-performing schools make dramatic gains in their performance scores and pitched the creation of school-embedded teams to work on Lafayette Parish’s D and F schools.

When asked for his priorities for his first 120 days, Aguillard told the board he’d focus on improving student achievement among high school students. Aguillard said he’ll also work on a balanced budget and to address “the elephant in the room” ­­­— the district’s aging facilities.

“You have a good school district,” he said. “You have lots of A and B schools, but you have 25 percent of your students in D and F schools, and you have one third of your students in third through eighth grade scoring below basic. … You have the resources. It’s going to take the adults stepping up and doing the things adults need to do for the children to be successful.”

In St. Mary Parish, Aguillard said, the board created a program to provide summer enrichment to struggling elementary students so they’re prepared for the fourth grade.

“We send our second- and third-graders to summer school because it makes no sense to wait until they’re fourth-graders to remediate for deficiencies,” he said.

Aguillard was selected to replace interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeune, who was appointed to the post in November following the then-board’s termination of Pat Cooper. LeJeune plans to retire this summer.

Since 2004, Aguillard has worked as superintendent of schools in St. Mary Parish, a position he took after more than 28 years as an administrator and teacher in Lafayette Parish schools. Aguillard was one of three finalists for the Lafayette parish superintendent job in 2011 but withdrew to continue his work in St. Mary Parish.

Aguillard holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from LSU, and an educational specialist certificate in school administration, a master’s degree in secondary education and a bachelor’s degree in biology education, all from then-University of Southwestern Louisiana, which is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

He began his teaching career at Acadiana High School in 1975. While in the Lafayette Parish School System, he held positions of assistant principal at Acadiana High; director of management information systems at the central office; principal of Carencro High; and an area director of schools.

The board had selected three candidates from a pool of 12 applicants to interview for the job; however, the third candidate, Carlos J. Sam, withdrew after he was selected Tuesday by the East Feliciana Parish School Board for its superintendent position.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.