The Montgomery County Board of Education asked outgoing School Superintendent Paul L. Vance yesterday to remain on the job for several more weeks while the board conducts final background checks of its top candidate to succeed him.

Vance, who agreed to the board's request, had been scheduled to step down June 30, the date set by the state for the appointment of a successor. But Board President Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County) said the state has given the board up to six more weeks to finish the background check and final interview and gather community input.

In keeping with the manner in which they have conducted the $25,000, six-month search, board members were mum about the identity of the top candidate. Felton would say only that he is "an outstanding individual with a very broad background. He's well credentialed and has a strong reputation nationally."

The board also has chosen a second candidate, a woman, in case its first choice falls through, Felton said.

Sam Mikaelian, of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the private firm conducting the search for a superintendent, said both candidates were respected, creative and innovative.

Unlike previous candidates who applied for the four-year job, the two finalists were recruited, Mikaelian said, and emerged as candidates in the last 10 days.

Initially, the board received 40 applications and narrowed the pool to six finalists before choosing Elfreda W. Massie, a deputy superintendent in the Baltimore County school system. But Massie withdrew her candidacy last month after the disclosure that she had filed for bankruptcy twice. Although Massie's financial difficulties were widely known, Massie did not tell the board, members said, nor did the search firm discover them.

This time, the board decided to pay up to $1,000 more for the search firm to look into the candidates' private lives.

"We're asking more questions this time around," Felton said. "We're asking different kinds of questions. We're being very careful."

Board member Stephen N. Abrams (At Large) said he expected the board to name the new superintendent in early July. Although the board has been criticized for not involving more education activists in the search and for disclosing little information, Felton and Abrams said there would be time, although not much, for the community to have its say in private meetings and public forums.

Michael L. Subin, chairman of the Montgomery County Council's education committee, said he was relieved that the board had asked Vance to stay on instead of rushing to make a decision by the June 30 deadline.

The Montgomery County school superintendent sets policy for and manages a system with a $1.1 billion budget, 16,500 employees and 128,000 students. With more than a dozen top staff spots open, the new superintendent could change the complexion of a bureaucracy often criticized as enamored of the status quo.

For Vance, who has run the system for eight years, yesterday's decision was a relief.

"I've had some anxiety," Vance said. "There is just so much that we normally do over the summer."

The list includes overseeing $114 million in construction and renovation projects, hiring 750 teachers and appointing 15 new principals.

The announcement that Vance will stay on came two days after his crowded farewell party. Vance received a gold watch for his years of service and a gold tennis bracelet.

"Oh, God, I hope I don't have to return anything," Vance joked. "That's why I'm emphasizing short term, short term, short term."