The Howard County school board said yesterday that it wants to offer a four-year contract to Interim Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, an abrupt departure from its earlier plan to conduct a national search for a permanent leader.

The board had hired a private firm to help it find suitable candidates for the job and expected to spend almost a year on the search before naming a superintendent. But in a closed meeting Thursday, after the last of the county's high school graduations, the board decided to scrap that plan and offer the job to Cousin.

"There was just more and more evidence . . . that Sydney Cousin was the right person for Howard County," said board member Joshua M. Kaufman, who is coordinating the search.

Cousin said he would accept the job if the board offered it to him. He said that over the next four years, he would hope to increase communication between schools and the county Department of Education. He also said he is committed to Howard's plans to close the achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts.

"I think that the job that [the board] hired me to do as an interim superintendent is not finished and cannot be finished in a short period of time," he said. "To put things into place and then to potentially have them undone would not serve me or the school system very well."

Cousin took office March 1, after a bitter breakup between the five-member school board and former superintendent John O'Rourke. The board had decided early this year not to renew O'Rourke's four-year contract, and he left the $197,000-a-year job at the end of February.

Originally, Cousin was slated to serve through the end of O'Rourke's term in June. The board had asked state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick in March for permission to appoint Cousin to a one-year interim term to give members time to find a permanent leader. Grasmick denied the request and said the board should do its best to find a new superintendent by July 1, as required by state law.

Cousin, 58, has said several times that he intends to apply for the permanent position.

In a news release, the board said it intends to gather public comment on its plan to offer the job to Cousin at its regular meeting Thursday and will hold a meeting between him and residents June 16. Board members hope to make a final decision by June 22.

Deborah Wessner, president of the county PTA Council, said that parents have not had enough time to get to know Cousin and that a national search might find other qualified candidates.

"I don't think parents in general know what Dr. Cousin's values are," she said. "To suddenly have this be a fait accompli when in fact [the board] had indicated . . . a totally different approach is very surprising."

Board Chairman Courtney Watson said in the release that conducting a national search "would bring another year of uncertainty." Howard, the state's academically top-ranked school system, has been in turmoil over the past several months over accusations of improper grade changes at two high schools and a shake-up among top officials.

Cousin announced an overhaul of top-tier positions last month and rehired several key officials who had left during O'Rourke's administration. Cousin himself had left Howard during the previous superintendent's tenure. He retired as deputy superintendent in July after 16 years in the school system. He took a job with the District public schools as chief of facilities before returning to Howard as interim superintendent in March.

Joseph Staub, head of the county teachers union, said that it has "had a very positive working relationship with Dr. Cousin in the past" and hopes to develop a "true partnership" with the school system.

Kaufman said the board will not have to fulfill its $39,000 contract with the search firm Ray & Associates, based in Iowa, but will likely hire the firm as a consultant to help ease the transition to a new superintendent. He also said the board has not discussed what Cousin's salary would be.

Howard County Interim Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said he would accept the permanent superintendent's position if he were offered it.