Fairfax County parent and teacher groups and former school leaders yesterday criticized the secrecy of the search process for a new superintendent of the region's largest school system, and several said they were surprised at the decision to hire the relatively unknown head of Frederick County's much smaller district.

Jack D. Dale's selection, expected after background checks are completed this week, was reported by The Washington Post yesterday after the 55-year-old Maryland educator informed area superintendents that he had been offered the job and County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) was told of the school panel's unanimous choice.

Parents, teachers, principals and community leaders contacted yesterday said they were taken aback, with several saying they expected a more prominent national figure to take charge of the nation's 12th-largest public system. All said a months-long search for a successor to Daniel A. Domenech, who announced in December plans to depart, had left them in the dark.

"I was very surprised the board did this behind closed doors, without public input," said former School Board chairman Isis Castro. "That's the way things have been done in Fairfax County, by reaching out to people."

Another former board chairman, Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax), said Dale would face a learning curve in jumping to a system more than four times as large as Frederick County's with fewer local and national contacts than his two direct predecessors, Robert R. Spillane and Domenech. "I had to Google him," Amundson said.

Spillane arrived in 1985 as former head of Boston's school system. Domenech, a native of Cuba who moved to the United States at age 9, was a veteran of the New York City and Long Island systems. He started in 1998.

Amundson said the board has put Dale in a weak position by not paving the way for him ahead of time by consulting with Fairfax County business, parent and education groups.

"Domenech has said that this is the best superintendency in America. . . . I think Fairfax parents really believe that, so I think expectations are raised about who comes in to take this position," Amundson said. "I think he [Dale] starts behind the starting line. He has to make up more than somebody else would have to, a different kind of person."

Dale was in Ocean City yesterday and declined to comment about his plans or education philosophy for now, continuing a public silence since disclosing his selection at a meeting of local education officials. He said he expected to be more responsive soon and would speak pending approval by Kathy L. Smith (Sully), the Fairfax School Board chairman.

Smith said board members had agreed not to discuss the search process, which was conducted with suburban Chicago consulting firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, until it was completed. Smith said she expected background checks on the board's choice to be completed this week, adding, "I don't minimize the importance of those background checks."

If the announcement is confirmed June 1, as Dale has told acquaintances he expects, he will leave an award-winning, eight-year record of modernizing the Frederick County school system, improving its use of technology and increasing by 141 percent the number of Advanced Placement tests taken by students. Dale was named Maryland superintendent of the year in 2000 by state peers. His contract expires June 30.

The two county systems have different profiles. Frederick has 4,500 employees, 58 schools and a 2004 operating budget of $332 million. Fairfax has about 19,000 workers, 239 schools and a $1.6 billion budget. Fairfax has four times as many students as Frederick.

The exurban Maryland district has a student makeup that is 83 percent white, 10 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic. Fairfax County's makeup is 53 percent white, 17 percent Asian American, 15 percent Hispanic and 11 percent African American.

Castro said she wished Dale luck with the hard work ahead and hoped he would "step up" and reach out to all students served by the county, including the 23,000 Fairfax pupils who are not proficient in English. She noted that 45,000 Fairfax students speak a language other than English at home, about the same number as Frederick's total enrollment.

Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association, whose membership includes about 60 percent of the county system's 12,000 teachers, said the union looked forward to meeting with Dale and working with any candidate who comes to the county.

"We're certainly surprised that the candidate, if he is to be the final candidate, does not have more of a national reputation for as large a system as the Fairfax system is," Allen said. She said Dale has a good reputation in Maryland, and his technology work "bodes well."

Allen added, "We would certainly have liked to have some input with the School Board in their decision-making process toward the end here," as was the case before Domenech's selection.

George Towery, principal of Cameron Elementary School and an advocate of Domenech's push to fund low-performing schools, Project Excel, said the search process was "more confidential" than others he had seen over 40 years in the school system.

"They were really quiet about it, so I was surprised. Now I'm curious," Towery said. "The right person can do this job, regardless of where they're coming from."

Louise Epstein, a parent and president of Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, said, "I think parents would have liked to have had more input, but that doesn't mean Mr. Dale won't be a great superintendent. We just don't know."

Staff writers Jay Mathews and S. Mitra Kalita contributed to this report.

In Fairfax, Jack Dale would oversee four times as many students as in his Frederick County district.