The Montgomery County Board of Education, handed the unexpected task of finding a new superintendent, faces complications in what would ordinarily be a straightforward quest.
For one thing, the majority of the board's members are so green -- four have been in office less than a month -- that they remain, as one said, "a little bit in a state of shock."
For another, the most obvious prospective candidate, Deputy Superintendent Paul L. Vance, may be courted for the superintendent's job in Baltimore, where the mayor ordered the school board last week to get rid of Superintendent Richard C. Hunter.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke considers Vance, who was narrowly passed over for the city school system's top job in 1977, "probably the most attractive candidate around," according to a political source in Baltimore who has conferred with the mayor.
In Montgomery, the effects of these complications will not become clear until early January, when the school board starts to think through what it wants in a new superintendent and how it wants to go about hiring one. The board has not yet decided even whether to conduct a formal search to replace Harry Pitt, 60, who announced last week that he will retire in June.
Pitt will depart as an unusually large number of major U.S. school systems are looking for chief executives. Locally, the D.C. Board of Education is trying to replace Andrew E. Jenkins, whom it fired last month. And Prince George's County Superintendent John A. Murphy is looking for another job.
Despite the competition, Montgomery has several built-in advantages in recruiting.
"It is a large district, which means it has lots of interesting opportunities," said Gail Stephens, deputy director of the American Association of School Administrators, an 18,000-member organization that includes most of the nation's superintendents. "It has a relatively wealthy tax base, which means it has a constituency for education. And it has a good history of people working well together, working hard on improvements."
"Montgomery is the plum," said J. Edward Andrews, a former Montgomery superintendent who was brought in recently as deputy superintendent in Baltimore. "Any time that job is open, Montgomery County can normally have its pick."
Montgomery, in which three-fifths of the students are white, has a potentially wider pool of politically acceptable candidates than big, city school systems in which most students belong to minority groups. In Prince George's, for example, the black community objected last spring when the school board offered Murphy, who is white, a long extension of his contract.
The Montgomery school board has a tradition of hiring a superintendent only after a national search. But the school system has alternated during the last 15 years between superintendents who were promoted from within and ones recruited from outside.
The last outsider, William S. Cody, left in 1987 amid signs that the board was not going to renew his contract.
"Our record with outside superintendents has not been very good," said one top school official who asked not to be identified. "It takes too long to figure out what is going on here, plus you've got a group of administrators who are very confident, very self-directed."
"Outsiders . . . come in thinking Montgomery County operates the way other school systems operated. And it isn't true," said board member Sharon DiFonzo. "The people in this county take on bureaucrats for recreation."
Inside the school system, Vance is considered a logical -- although not inevitable -- successor to Pitt, who appointed him in 1987 as his second-in-command. Vance is in charge of day-to-day management of the county's 160 schools, which have nearly 104,000 students. He also is known as politically shrewd and has strong allies in the school system and the county.
He also is black -- one factor that has made him attractive during the last search for a superintendent in the District and that enhances his appeal in Baltimore. "I would assume he is the leading candidate in the mind of the mayor," said the Baltimore source.
Vance was Baltimore's deputy superintendent from 1973 to 1977. He went to Montgomery as a regional associate superintendent after failing to win the Baltimore superintendency.
Friday, Vance said he had not been approached by Schmoke. But, he added, "Ask me Friday, Dec. 28, or Friday, Jan. 4." He said he has not decided whether he is interested in either the Montgomery job or the one in Baltimore, saying, "That is still up in the air with me."
Montgomery's board President Blair Ewing said it is premature to consider how to handle potential rivalry between school systems for any candidate. Other board members said they would be reluctant to choose a superintendent without a thorough search.
Vance "is very qualified," said Ana Sol Gutierrez, one of the new members. "But we . . . owe it to ourselves to go through the process."
Yet the prospect of conducting a search is daunting to the new members, who said they still are trying to understand the school system and to prepare for what is likely to be an arduous budget fight this winter with the county government.
At a closed meeting Monday, when Pitt startled the board by announcing his retirement, three of the board's seven members tried to persuade him to stay for at least a year to provide more of a transition.
"I really think Dr. Pitt right now has the knowledge and expertise we need to make it through the hard times," Gutierrez said.
But Pitt stuck by his decision, saying he did not want to be a long-term lame duck.