Lisa Burch, the cafeteria manager in the Montgomery County public schools headquarters, stepped outside for a moment shortly before 7 a.m. yesterday and returned to find a mysterious visitor waiting to see her.

He was a tall, authoritative-looking guy in a black suit and black wingtips, not the type who usually shows up to talk to the cafeteria workers. As Burch returned, a co-worker growled, "The boss is here."

As in the big boss, the county's new school superintendent, Jerry Weast--the chap with the dizzying salary, the reputation for running things like a general and the mandate to shake things up.

Burch, though, was touched. "He actually came down to see us . . . to meet us," she said yesterday as she stood by the cash register in the cafeteria of the district's Rockville headquarters.

"It was really nice," she said, "because sometimes we're sort of left alone. Nobody knows we exist, except when they want their meal and they want it now. So it was really nice that he came down first off and wanted to meet us.

"We're part of the system, too," she said. "We're not just the lunch ladies."

Weast was, indeed, a hit with the lunch ladies. But he seemed to make a good impression throughout the warren of headquarters offices, large and small, in his first day on the job.

Weast, 51, made headlines when he was hired last month at a base salary of $237,794, making him one of the highest-paid public school commanders-in-chief in the nation.

He started on the job early yesterday after settling into a temporary apartment in Gaithersburg.

He actually started scouting the school system Sunday, the day after he and his wife, Linda, arrived from North Carolina, where he had headed the Guilford County school system.

"We went out looking around," he said as paused in his tour of the district headquarters yesterday. "I bet I visited 40, 50 schools. I could tell the overall general condition. . . . You can get what I call curb appeal. You can go up to a school and see some things about how it's laid out. You can tell the age of schools by the sizes of the windows and the placement and what kind of doors.

"I was really impressed," he said. "I thought the schools were well-situated. . . . They were built with some forethought. You could tell some of them had been expanded exponentially.

"I also found that we've got some schools that are in repair," he said. "I'm going to go out and look at those later this week to see, you know, are we going to be on time."

Weast said he knows he has little time before the county's 131,000 students return to their 189 schools on Sept 1. And yesterday he seemed like a man who knew he had a lot to learn.

He strode amiably along the cinder block corridors of the headquarters building, a converted high school, shaking hands and buttonholing people in corridors, offices and the cafeteria. He peeled off his suit coat, sat on desks and said, "Holy mackerel!"

"Hi, how are you?" he asked again and again. "What do you do? How long have been with the system?"

As he passed one woman in a corridor, he said: "Jerry Weast, how are you?"

"Jackie Simpson, I'm busy," she replied, noting that a big new school computer system had just been turned on for the first time.

"Is that right?" he said. "Does it work?"

It did.

In another office, three women greeted him.

"Welcome aboard, Dr. Weast," said one. "I'm Cathy Madden. I'm the guilty party who will be setting up your computer this afternoon in your office."

Weast said he would try not to be a slave to his computer but would rather try to get information in person for now.

"I need to know how it really works, and I can find out how it really works from people," he said. "I'm trying to find out how people feel and what they feel, and what they think needs to change, and what they think needs to stay the same.

"And, if they had something they really wanted to tell the new guy, what is it?

"There's the story," he said, "and then there's the real story."