The rising-star CEO had won rave reviews for turning around his troubled organization when his board heard he was a finalist for the top job in another shop. Concerned that this was just the first of many attempts to woo its star away, the board promised the executive a hefty $100,000 bonus--on top of his $209,000 salary--if he stuck around for three more years.

It could be a typical scene from corporate America, except that this organization was the Beaumont, Tex., public school system, home to a mere 21,000 students.

And its CEO is just one of an elite new class of school superintendents, who in years past might have spent their careers in one district but now move from town to town with the ease of star athletes, burnishing reputations and commanding salaries once unheard of in the public sector.

This summer, two Washington area districts paid top dollar to snag high-powered outsiders with national reputations. Montgomery County's Jerry Weast--a veteran of seven superintendencies in 21 years--will be paid a base salary of $237,000, one of the highest in the country, and receive medical and life insurance benefits, a car allowance, relocation expenses and a hefty retirement package. Prince George's County wooed a former Delaware education secretary, Iris T. Metts, with a $160,000 salary, plus thousands more if tests scores improve on her watch.

Education analysts and school leaders say the phenomenon is largely a result of supply and demand, intensified by the increased pressures on school systems and the people who run them. Few educators wish to contend with the sweeping classroom reform, complex labor negotiations, crisis management and bitter politics that shadow the job these days--and fewer still are deemed capable.

"School districts are feeling under the gun to meet state standards and raise student achievement," said Joe Schneider, deputy executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "If you can find a superintendent who has a track record of doing that, you want that--and so does everybody else."

Even superintendents who so far haven't sought greener pastures are benefiting from their profession's new stature. Just 18 months after moving here from Long Island, Fairfax County Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech won a 10 percent raise, boosting his salary to $175,000. Board members said they were pleased with his work and tough new standards imposed on individual schools--and they were concerned to hear that other school districts were already inquiring about him.

And now, D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who makes $150,000 and was once the highest-paid schools chief in the region, is said to be pushing for a raise of at least $20,000.

Certainly, not every superintendent is drawing a salary like Domenech's or Weast's. The average pay for superintendents of school districts with at least 25,000 students was $133,702 last year, and many were making much less. And the extravagant salaries are nothing new--superintendents of major city school systems have long been drawing six figures.

What is striking is the number of disproportionately large salaries in smaller cities and suburbs. Weast's salary for governing Montgomery County's 128,000-student school system is only slightly less than the $245,000 earned by the chancellor of New York City schools, with 1.1 million students. Providence, R.I., with only 26,000 students, was so eager to hire Diana Lam that officials agreed last week to pay her $150,000--slightly more than she earned as superintendent in the San Antonio school district, which is twice as big--plus time away from her desk to teach college or work as a consultant.

School officials insist they have little choice but to offer such salaries and perks. As with teachers and principals, whose ranks are being depleted by a wave of baby-boomer retirements, the pool of eligible superintendents is shrinking.

Increasingly, school districts want an outsider who can bring a fresh perspective, so they are disinclined to promote an administrator from their own ranks. And some superintendents may not have the full range of administrative and classroom knowledge to take on the particular demands of a school system today.

"The good ones know a lot about budget and finance, but also teaching and learning," said Linda Darling-Hammond, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

So the pool of eligible superintendents has dwindled to a small, elite cadre whose names turn up again and again as finalists for top jobs in districts across the country.

"Taxpayers are no longer going to sit back and permit their schools to do less than their best," said Martha Hicks, president of the Beaumont Independent School District board. "If you're going to ask for the best from the district's educational leader and hold him accountable, then you need to pay him accordingly."

"If you look at what people are being paid in comparable positions in the corporate sector, these salaries are not out of line," said Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education and former Maryland State Board of Education president. "They're still significantly underpaid."

While there has been little outcry about the high salaries, many are concerned about the high turnover among superintendents. The tenure of a typical school district chief has shrunk dramatically--from 10 to 12 years a generation ago to two or three years today.

"If you want to be a superintendent in this day and age, with all the stress and the nights out, then you're a problem-solver, you're a visionary, you're a risk-taker," said Anne Kirkpatrick, a consultant who runs superintendent searches for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

"They go in and solve these problems, and after a few years, they say, 'I've given it everything I can. I now want a new challenge; I want to go into a new school system and make a difference.'"

But some superintendents are chased away by school boards that grow impatient if student test scores rise too slowly or become unnerved by aggressive reform.

As a deputy superintendent in Cleveland, Johnny E. Brown saw schools decline as the district churned through a half-dozen chiefs in just over a decade. Today, the well-regarded superintendent of Birmingham, Ala., schools is determined to stick around--though he's getting tempting offers from other districts.

"If we're going to get this job done as we should," Brown said, "we cannot continue to have a revolving door. It's difficult to make true progress when you change leadership so often."

School Salaries

While most school superintendents are not drawing as large a salary as that of newly hired Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast, average salaries have crept up in the last 10 years.

Mean salaries in school districts of 25,000 or more students

Superintendents

1988-89 $90,110

1998-99 $133,702 48% increase

Classroom teachers

1988-89 $29,597

1998-99 $38,501 30% increase