Paul D. Stapleton is resigning as the top public school official in Virginia less than two years after Gov. James S. Gilmore III plucked the educator from a poor, rural Southside district to oversee a state system of 1.2 million students, officials said today.

Gilmore's office is scheduled to announce Stapleton's resignation Thursday, after word spread in education circles about the impending departure of the well-liked former superintendent of Charlotte County, who enjoyed close ties to his peers around the state.

"He cares about the children of Virginia, for the future of Virginia," said Jennifer C. Byler, a Cape Charles resident who joined the nine-member Board of Education shortly before Gilmore tapped Stapleton for the $126,010-a-year post in March 1998.

"Paul's going to find a way to make a contribution" outside public office, Byler said.

Stapleton, 51, declined to comment today. Byler said she was informed of his planned resignation Sunday night by education board Chairman Kirk T. Schroder, a Richmond lawyer. Schroder also declined to comment today.

Known officially as the superintendent of public instruction, Stapleton was steering a diverse system through the transition from the administration of Gov. George Allen, who put in place controversial learning standards that rank the performance of individual schools and their students, to Gilmore, another Republican who inherited Allen's program and has provided the funding and philosophical support to keep it going.

One close Stapleton associate said his decision to resign was largely personal, prompted in part by his health concerns and the recent death of his father.

Stapleton grew up on a burley tobacco farm in the Scott County community of Nickelsville.

Stapleton was fond of wearing a lapel pin that read "Children First," and seemed mindful of his roots on the front lines of education, which for him as a young elementary school teacher meant double duty as a school bus driver. He ran the Charlotte County schools, a 2,300-student system in the tobacco country southwest of Richmond near the North Carolina line, for 11 years.

By contrast, Fairfax County has single high schools with enrollments as large as Charlotte County's entire system.

Jo Lynne DeMary, a Stapleton deputy whose other state service has included a tour as an advisory member of the Child Day-Care Council, is expected to serve as acting superintendent and may succeed him, administration officials said.

CAPTION: Paul D. Stapleton was named Virginia's superintendent of public instruction in March 1998.