Jack D. Dale, a veteran educator and superintendent of Frederick County schools, has emerged as the leading candidate to become Fairfax County's next schools chief, officials said yesterday.

Dale, 55, is well regarded in education circles and has been praised for modernizing the growing Maryland school system of 40,000 students, improving its use of technology and maintaining a close working relationship with elected officials.

Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said he was told yesterday morning that Dale has the unanimous support of the School Board and that the board planned to announce his appointment pending the completion of final background checks.

Dale, who has been superintendent in Frederick for eight years and whose contract expires June 30, did not return several telephone calls yesterday seeking comment. But word of his candidacy leaked after Dale announced to a group of educators attending an annual party of the Washington Area School Study Council on Friday night that he had been offered the job.

Arthur W. Gosling, executive director of the council, which includes all the region's superintendents, said that Dale, who holds the organization's rotating presidency, made the announcement to colleagues during the party. He said Dale indicated that the Fairfax decision was not yet firm but that he expected to be named in a week.

Former Fairfax superintendent Daniel A. Domenech, who was also present at the Friday event at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, said he was surprised by Dale's announcement. After the announcement, he said the two spoke one-on-one about Fairfax's challenges, particularly its growing diversity.

"He was the host," Domenech said yesterday. "He kind of let that out of the bag. From my perspective, he certainly wasn't saying that he is going to be it. It sounded like he was saying, 'They've basically offered me the position and they intend to make an announcement on June 1.' "

Frederick Board of Education member Bonnie M. Borsa said Dale began telling board members and school officials there about his likely departure on Tuesday.

"He seemed excited," Borsa said yesterday. "He said he was very excited to get the offer. He was relieved and flattered and excited for the challenge. He said it was a 'downer' to talk to his staff and say he was leaving."

Fairfax County School Board Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) would not confirm Dale's selection, saying only that the board had agreed that the superintendent search process would be confidential until complete and that the board still has to undergo "due diligence" on its candidate.

"I feel comfortable saying that we're at the point in the process where we're doing due diligence on one name," Smith said yesterday.

Several other School Board members declined to comment on the record, saying Smith speaks for the group.

If hired, Dale will take the reins of a school system more than four times as large and much more diverse than the one he now runs. Fairfax, with 166,000 students, is the largest school system in the Washington region and in Virginia. Its student body is 53 percent white, 17 percent Asian, 15 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black. Frederick's student body is 83 percent white, 9.8 percent black and 4.1 percent Hispanic.

Domenech said Dale has an excellent reputation in Frederick. "I'm sure he's up to the challenge of the Fairfax County public school system," he said.

Domenech announced in December that he would retire in March to take a job with a textbook publisher in New York. He cited a need to be close to his aging and ailing parents.

Unlike five years ago, when Domenech was hired, the search for his successor has been highly confidential.

Meetings were not open to the public, and neither names of applicants nor finalists have been made public. Smith said the school system was following the advice of the consulting firm the board used, Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates.

Public input, Smith said, came at the beginning of the process, when parents and community members held meetings and formulated lists of characteristics they wanted in a superintendent.

Still, some parents reacted to the news of Dale's candidacy with surprise and said they wished they had been given more involvement.

"We were disappointed in that," said Diane Brody, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. Brody said she trusts the School Board to make the right decision but said she believes many parents will be surprised at the selection of a nearby superintendent from a smaller and less diverse system.

Dale is less well known nationally than Domenech was when he was hired. Yesterday, Domenech said that Dale is not in the "Rudy Crew category" of candidate -- referring to the former New York City school chancellor who was recently courted for the District's superintendency but accepted the head job in Miami instead. "Perhaps that's not what the School Board was looking for," he said.

But Frederick parents and board members give Dale high praise. Under his leadership, participation in college-level courses has soared; the number of Advanced Placement tests has increased 141 percent since 1997. Four of what were then the county's eight high schools (there is now a ninth) made Newsweek's list of America's most challenging high schools last year, based on participation in college-level courses.

Dale also oversaw the creation of the first charter school in the Washington suburbs and Maryland, the Monocacy Valley Montessori School.

Frederick Board of Education member Jean A. Smith said Dale brought the county into the computer age, helping the district attain one of the best computer-to-pupil ratios in the state. He also spearheaded a restructuring of a growing school system. Board members and parents said he has been a strong advocate for education and worked hard to lobby state and local officials for more funding.

"He has really been good at lobbying funding sources and getting them to understand our needs," said Smith, who declined to confirm whether Dale had been offered the Fairfax job, noting that the process is not complete.

"He's a really inspirational leader," Smith continued. "He has empowered his staff to do excellent work. He tells them what they need to do and lets them do it. I, personally, would be sorry to see him leave. "

Dale was named Maryland superintendent of the year in 2000 by the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland and this year received the Maryland Outstanding Technology Leader in Education Award from the Maryland Instructional Computer Coordinators Association.

Staff writers Victoria Benning, Jay Mathews, Elaine Rivera and Jacqueline Salmon contributed to this report.

A Frederick County school board member calls Superintendent Jack Dale "a really inspirational leader."