James E. Henderson may have some doubters, who figure one year on the school board is hardly enough to take the helm. But the way he sees it, this past year was more eventful than most and good preparation for the Board of Education's top job.

Henderson was elected chairman of the Prince George's County school board last week after several rounds of balloting. He replaces Alvin Thornton (Suitland) as chairman. Thornton's District 7 position has a term that expires in November and will be filled by someone selected by County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) and approved by the County Council.

During the past 12 months, Henderson points out, he has: had a front-row seat to observe the political carping among local school officials and state leaders in Annapolis; seen one school superintendent leave and another arrive; lobbied to get more money for teachers; and--against his wishes--found ways to cut $52 million from the school system's initial budget request.

"During this year, a whole bunch of stuff has been exposed to us," Henderson, 56, said with a chuckle.

Henderson, who lives in Seabrook and represents school District 2, is part of a new generation of leadership, coming into office just a few months after the arrival of School Superintendent Iris T. Metts.

"I don't think I know everything. Neither does Dr. Metts. But I know enough to know that that's okay, because since we don't know, we can ask dumb questions," Henderson said. "First, we'll ask, 'What are you doing?' Then we'll ask, 'Explain how you're doing it.' "

Thornton resigned from the board to chair a state task force that is studying ways to divvy up state resources to school districts equitably.

Angela Como (Laurel) was elected vice chairman, replacing Doyle Niemann (Mount Rainier), who will remain on the board.

Henderson won a tightly contested election, narrowly edging Bernard Phifer (Hillcrest Heights) in a vote that took several ballots. The vote among the 10-member board, which includes nine elected members and one student member, was done through secret ballot, and the winner needed a six-vote majority.

In the first round of voting, Henderson and Phifer got the most votes, besting the two others running for chairman, Niemann and Como. The runoff between Henderson and Phifer, however, took several rounds before a winner emerged. For the first several rounds, Henderson received five votes and Phifer received four, meaning one board member abstained. It was unclear which member abstained during secret ballots, but in the public vote confirming the private balloting, board member Marilynn Bland (Clinton) abstained. Henderson won 6 to 3.

The vice chairmanship also was a close call, with Como and Catherine A. Smith (Cheverly) initially tying with five votes apiece. Como pulled out a 6 to 4 victory in an ensuing round.

Colleagues describe Henderson, a financial planner who retired as a major after 27 years in the Air Force, as an amenable consensus-builder who is willing to listen to others and thoroughly research issues before taking a position. He was the head of the board's budget committee this year and helped guide the board through the tough task of whittling $52 million from the school budget when county leaders declared the board's initial request too high.

Henderson, a native of Montgomery, Ala., received a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a master's of arts degree in East Asian history from the University of Washington in Seattle and a master's of business administration from Southeastern University in the District. He was an assistant professor of East Asian history at the Air Force Academy.

As board chairman, Henderson will speak for the board at hearings with state lawmakers in Annapolis and in meetings with county leaders. But some say his biggest challenge will be keeping the school board harmonious and ensuring that board meetings run efficiently.

"The greatest expectation will come at 7:05 when the gavel strikes," said Thornton, who had three terms as board chairman. "How one deals with unanticipated debates and parliamentary issues and how one speaks for the board, I think he'll do well, but that will be the test."

Como received a bachelor's in education from California University of Pennsylvania and is a second-grade teacher in Anne Arundel County. She is the former president of the Laurel branch of the American Association of University Women and has been a school board member since 1996.

Henderson and Como say they want to build on recent cooperation among board members and other county and state leaders. Henderson wants to reach out to businesses--and is a member of Metts's new business advisory round table--and to parents through churches and other organizations.

His election, he said, "sends a message to the people and constituents that this is a new system and that we're about the concept of change. And that change means for the better.

"My military background helps me bring some things to the table," he added. "Most who have military experience know discipline, budgets, management. You have to know how to get things done now."

Some county residents who follow school board politics say they privately wonder whether Henderson has enough institutional knowledge of the system and the willpower to keep county leaders focused on the terms of the 1998 court agreement that laid out a plan to end 26 years of cross-county busing to balance schools racially. That plan, known as a memorandum of understanding (MOU), gave specific procedures for the county to build at least 13 new schools in six years.

But Thornton said that he is convinced that the county leadership supports major structural issues that have been hammered out over the past two years--including the MOU, the selection of Metts and the relationship of the board to a state-appointed panel that is overseeing school improvement efforts.

"What has to happen is that new issues will have to be defined," Thornton said. "From them will come the challenges of this leadership. This leadership can't piggyback on what we resolved. I can suggest to them some new issues . . . such as the question of how you deal with TRIM [the county's property tax cap] and educational financing. That requires vision."

Henderson said he will not hesitate to call Thornton for advice on some issues.

"I told him not to go too far," Henderson said. "I need to lean on his knowledge of things, the way they've gone down in the past. Just because he's gone, won't mean he's not involved. I still have his phone number."

CAPTION: James E. Henderson is described as an amenable consensus-builder.