To meet a May 15 deadline and save money, the Loudoun County School Board has agreed to forgo a nationwide search of the type used to find former superintendent David N. Thomas, which cost more than $25,000, and instead focus on candidates from the region, Chairman C. Carroll Laycock Jr. said.

"We don't have that luxury. It's expensive," said board member Joyce S. Rocks (Catoctin), who opposed the firing of Thomas but backs the idea of limiting the search. "Of course, I think a board that is worried about expenses shouldn't have gotten itself into this mess."

The board plans to begin its search today by choosing a salary and developing a list of qualifications for the job. During a special meeting at 5 p.m., the board also plans to name a committee of about 15 teachers, parents and county business people to lead the search and help screen applicants.

Thomas, 56, was fired last month, less than three years after he was hired to manage Loudoun's growing 14,600-student system. The School Board said Thomas had a management style that was incompatible with the system.

By state law, the county must hire a superintendent by May 15, 120 days after the job became vacant. The law also limits any new contract to two years, the time remaining on Thomas's contract, Laycock said.

The board will likely hire someone to help screen applicants, but the board will control the process, Laycock said. Acting Superintendent Harry Bibb is expected to suggest someone to help the board at tonight's meeting, Laycock said.

The board has already dusted off a brochure from the last search to use this time. It describes Loudoun, the school system and some of the board's expectations. Thomas continues to draw his $97,000-a-year salary, the highest in Loudoun government; Laycock said it is unlikely that his successor would be paid as much.

After a meeting last Thursday about the process of finding a new superintendent, Laycock said he wanted to hire someone familiar with schools in Virginia because it is the only state in which school boards are appointed by local governing boards, not elected. The new superintendent also will be expected to do more with less money because of impending budget problems.

"We're growing . . . . It's got to be someone who has got a vision," Laycock said. "It's going to be a tough act to balance."

Barbara B. D'Elia (Dulles) and Rocks, who both strongly opposed the decision to fire Thomas, said they want to hire someone who is progressive, aggressive and committed to drawing parents into the school system's decision-making. They said it does not matter to them where the candidate is from.

"I would like someone who has a great many of the characteristics that Dave Thomas has," Rocks said. "Without any pressure, things tend to stay the way they are . . . . I would like to see someone who will do what he has to do to move people."

Maureen Dabkowski, president of the Loudoun Education Alliance of Parents, said she is happy that parents will be asked to participate on the search committee. "We're very excited about the opportunity," she said.

School officials have said there is no obvious successor to Thomas. Assistant Superintendent Edgar Hatrick III, a candidate for the job the last time, has said he would likely seek it again. The School Board decided to fire Thomas after he excluded Hatrick, a school employee since 1967, from a staff meeting about the budget. Thomas said Hatrick was trying to undercut him politically.

Talks between the School Board and Thomas's attorneys have gone smoothly, Laycock said last week after a School Board attorney briefed the board about the negotiations. But the board still expects to have to pay Thomas more than $210,000 for the remaining 27 months of his contract, he said.

"We're looking at a substantial amount of money," he said.