Laura I. McDowell, a member of the Fairfax County School Board, apologized yesterday.

"My brain is oatmeal," she said. "To spend the better part of two days in Boston, fly in late and vote on a $500 million budget as soon as you hit the ground, hire a new superintendent and, the next day, go into boundary hearings . . . . You can't imagine."

Even under ordinary circumstances, the week would have been a chaotic one for Fairfax's 10-member School Board. In the midst of its budget hearings, the board also concluded an intense search for a new superintendent to replace the retiring William J. Burkholder as chief of the Fairfax school system -- the largest in the Washington area and the 10th largest in the nation.

In a closed-door meeting early Thursday morning, board members voted unanimously to offer the job to Boston Superintendent Robert R. (Bud) Spillane, 51. He is known for raising academic standards and improving discipline and morale in Boston's racially troubled schools during the last 3 1/2 years.

For Fairfax School Board Chairman Mary E. Collier, who woke Spillane with a 12:30 a.m. phone call to tell him he had the job, it was an end to the prolonged meetings, the numerous reference checks, the long-distance telephone calling, salary negotiations and unannounced out-of-town visits. It was, Collier said, "a tremendous sense of relief and joy" to have the search concluded.

The search actually began in June, after Burkholder said he was likely to retire this year. The effort stalled when the School Board attempted to keep him here with a $157,000-a-year pay package. But when the outcry over that proposal forced Burkholder back into his retirement plans, the search resumed.

In October, School Board members contracted for $15,000 with Carroll Johnson, a senior consultant with the National School Boards Association, to help select Burkholder's successor.

By December, Johnson and school officials had about 65 serious candidates from around the country, including women and minorities. Much of the response, Johnson said, had to do with Fairfax's reputation -- for academic excellence as well as for having considerable resources and strong parental support.

"It's one of the most prized jobs in the business," agreed Paul Salmon, executive director of the 18,000-member American Association of School Administrators.

Spillane had not applied, but Johnson knew of his work in Boston, and in early December he gave Spillane a call.

McDowell remembers meeting the new Fairfax superintendent. "The first impression is that this is a likable person. But I think what was really exciting was when we began to get into his philosophy.

"He really, deeply, believes that every child can learn," Collier said, "that you don't make excuses if you're not getting results."

"He can take what we already think is an excellent school system and make it even more so -- bring it beyond," Carmin C. (Chuck) Caputo, the board's vice chairman, said of Spillane, who will receive $90,000 a year along with $20,000 worth of benefits.

Board members said they believed Spillane would strengthen the county's system, not just maintain it; that he had the vision to continue Burkholder's efforts to bring the schools into the 21st century, by improving minority achievement scores, drawing more community and business support and addressing the expected national shortage of science and math teachers.

As the board narrowed its choices to four candidates, then two, details of the search remained secret -- so secret that McDowell said her daughter had to read the paper to find out that McDowell was in Boston last week for final interviews with Spillane.

"Jack [Burkholder] was very good," said Kevin Bell, education chairman for the Fairfax County Federation of Citizen Associations. "He [Spillane] has big shoes to fill."

Other county officials said they believe the Fairfax County school system is so strong that nearly any superintendent could do well.