In search of: a chief executive officer for Maryland's second-largest school system. Must be a bold reformer, a team player, a consensus builder and an effective communicator. Masters degree required; doctorate preferred. Minimum salary: $250,000.

That's what the Prince George's County school board said in an advertisement that appeared in several national publications in the fall, as it began its search for a new schools chief. This month, the search will kick into full gear.

Current schools chief Iris T. Metts's contract expires in July. She has said she wants to remain, and school board members say they aren't ruling her out. But they have hired the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) superintendent search service to conduct a national search.

By the end of the month, the school board is expected to take its first look at candidates and decide who to invite to the county for interviews, said Bea Gordon, the lead consultant from MABE's superintendent search service and a former Montgomery County school board member.

"I'm looking for someone who -- and this is not to say Dr. Metts is not the person -- someone who's a proven turnaround agent academically," said Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville), who, along with his eight colleagues, was appointed to the school board in June after state legislators abolished the elected board.

Metts was hired in July 1999 as superintendent, and immediately became immersed in very public battles with the elected school board. That board fired her last year. Then the State Board of Education stepped in to declare her firing illegal. Soon after, state legislators got rid of the school board and replaced the superintendent with a chief executive. The new school board promptly bestowed that title on Metts and raised her salary by 8 percent, to $212,000 a year.

Seven months after taking office, the new board is embarking on what will perhaps be the most important task of its tenure.

The search service began screening candidates Dec. 2. The group received 44 requests for applications, and as of last week, it had received 18 completed ones, Gordon said. She said she expected to get more this week.

Once the search firm is done sifting through the applications, it will forward an undetermined number to the school board. It's up to the school board to decide how many people to call in for closed-door interviews scheduled for February.

The public will get its first chance to meet candidates in March, when the school board decides on finalists and unveils their identities.

A final decision will be announced in April.