Frederick County schools chief Jack D. Dale was hired last night to run Fairfax County's public schools at an annual salary of $237,000, and he pledged to maintain the system's stature as "one of the premier school districts in the nation," despite his small-district roots.

Dale, 55, who was awarded a four-year contract in a unanimous vote by the School Board, is leaving rural but fast-growing Frederick County after eight years as superintendent. He said is ready to step into a system that is four times larger, has sharper income disparities among its families and serves hundreds more immigrant students.

"The roles are really no different here than in a smaller district," he said. "And that is to knit together all of the points of view . . . to move us into the future. The issues are the same no matter if it's a 40,000-student system or a 20,000-student system or a 166,000-student system. You have some students who aren't making it."

Dale will become the highest-paid public official in Fairfax and one of the Washington area's highest-paid school superintendents. He replaces Daniel A. Domenech, who headed the Fairfax system for six years and made $246,000 annually before retiring in March to work for a New York textbook publisher.

In Frederick County, Dale received $157,000 plus benefits. Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby's base salary is $250,000, and Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast makes $237,794.

Dale's hiring came as a surprise to many educators and parents who expected the board to lure a bigger name to head the nation's 12th-largest school system. But School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) said that after meeting Dale and visiting with school officials and community leaders in Frederick, he is confident of Dale's skills.

"One of the things that really impressed us is his ability to gather input from all the stakeholders and get everybody moving in the same directions," Gibson said. "Here in this community, more than in many other places, we want our superintendent to be accessible to the community. I think that Jack will go out of his way to make sure that people are heard."

Even before he signed his contract, Dale had his first taste of the intense scrutiny he will face as he heads the 166,000-student system. Although the board had agreed to keep its selection process secret until a superintendent was hired, Dale revealed last week that he was the board's top pick during a meeting of area educators, sparking intense media coverage.

Dale said he considers the premature announcement "water under the bridge" and said he is eager to begin his new job. He said that he plans to continue his long-standing practice of holding regular meetings with parents and community members and that his first task will be to talk to principals, teachers and other workers, such as bus drivers.

Although Dale's emphasis on collaboration made him an attractive candidate to the School Board, he acknowledges that participants sometimes get frustrated by the end result. "The plus side is people have a lot of opportunity for input; the downside is it can be a pretty messy process," Dale said.

Dale, who spent much of his career in Washington state, received his bachelor's and master's degrees and education doctorate from the University of Washington. He began his education career in 1971 as a mathematics teacher at a Washington state high school.

In Frederick County, Dale is credited with improving the schools' technology base. During his tenure, he said, the system went from one computer for every 40 students to one computer for every five. Most of Frederick's high schools now offer interactive computer courses that allow students to take advanced classes that aren't offered at their home school.

The incoming superintendent said he thinks Fairfax should have a "voice at the national table" as school districts across the country seek to meet the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He said he supports the goal of the federal plan but is concerned that the law places too great a focus on meeting minimum standards.

Dale said he is a proponent of smaller class sizes and extending school hours for children who struggle academically. He also believes that every student should take Advanced Placement classes.

Dale, who skis and flies planes, said he and his wife, Valerie, plan to move to a condominium or townhouse in Fairfax.

Staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.

Jack D. Dale, shown at a news conference yesterday, said of his new job: "The roles are really no different here than in a smaller district. And that is to knit together all of the points of view . . . to move us into the future."