Two veteran urban educators have emerged as the top contenders among four finalists to lead the District's public schools, according to officials and residents serving on a search committee that interviewed and ranked the candidates late last week.

Robert E. Schiller, the state superintendent in Illinois, and Eugene T.W. Sanders, the superintendent in Toledo, were ranked the highest of seven candidates interviewed by the committee, which includes Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and members of the D.C. Council and Board of Education.

In addition to Schiller and Sanders, two others -- Clifford B. Janey, the former superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., and John W. Thompson, the superintendent in Pittsburgh -- were selected as finalists Friday night after the search committee completed two days of interviews.

No decision is expected until later this week, when the mayor and other top city officials return from the Democratic National Convention in Boston. But members of the school board, who have the ultimate responsibility for hiring a superintendent, have begun comparing finalists' backgrounds and qualifications.

Despite the city's interest, it is not clear whether Schiller or Sanders is willing to take the job. Two previous front-runners, former New York City school chancellor Rudolph F. Crew and former Long Beach, Calif., superintendent Carl A. Cohn, dropped out in May and June, respectively.

Schiller would not comment on his candidacy, saying in an e-mail Saturday that it was "really too premature." In a brief interview yesterday, Sanders said, "I'm honored to be a finalist, and I'm anxious to have additional conversations with the board and community leaders."

The search committee's deliberations were described in detail yesterday by members who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a search firm hired by the District has urged them not to discuss the process. The interviews shed light on the challenges of finding a versatile and savvy leader for the 64,000-student system. The city's roughly 160 public schools have suffered from low test scores and declining enrollment and face new challenges, including federal testing requirements, private school vouchers and charter schools.

Committee members said they were impressed by Schiller's depth of knowledge, range of experience and national reputation, as well as by Sanders's dynamism, political skills and track record for improving academic performance. The two men, who both hold doctorates in education, were rated about equally by the committee on a dozen or so criteria, including ability to carry out educational reform, oversee school facilities and manage diverse employees and students. Schiller scored slightly higher in the ranking.

Seventeen search committee members worked into the night Friday without pause, even interviewing one candidate over a catered dinner that included Caesar and tomato salads, side dishes of asparagus and broccoli and a choice of chicken, salmon or roast beef.

Each committee member was given the chance to ask one question of the candidates, and the themes illustrate the varied qualities the District is looking for in its top educator.

Some members were most concerned about raising student performance. Julie Mikuta, who represents Wards 1 and 2 on the school board, asked the candidates how they would improve the academic performance of students in light of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Linda W. Cropp (D), D.C. Council chairman, asked the candidates for ideas on getting the system to comply with court orders concerning the schooling and transportation of children with learning and other disabilities.

Others were especially interested in communication skills. Carrie L. Thornhill, a mayoral appointee to the school board, asked the candidates how they would galvanize support for a common educational vision. Darlene T. Allen, president of the citywide organization of parent-teacher associations, asked the candidates how they would communicate educational progress to parents.

The political acumen of the candidates also came up. Another appointee to the school board, Robin B. Martin, asked the candidates about their relations with school boards in other districts. Tommy Wells, who represents Wards 5 and 6 on the school board, asked how budget cuts would be decided in the event of a deficit.

A final motif in the discussions was how to help the poorest and most vulnerable students. Carolyn N. Graham, a former deputy mayor who is now an appointee to the school board, inquired about efforts to reduce truancy, and Absalom F. Jordan Jr., a community activist in Southeast Washington, asked about how to help schools in the poorest communities east of the Anacostia River.

Schiller and Sanders both have extensive experience in urban education.

Schiller, 57, is a native of New Jersey and holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked for several school districts in New Jersey, where he began his career as an English teacher, and was a state education official in Louisiana, Delaware and Michigan. He was interim superintendent in Baltimore from 1997 to 1998 and ran the school system in Shreveport, La., from 1999 until 2002, when he took the job in Illinois.

A lifelong Ohio resident, Sanders, 47, was a high school teacher in his home town of Sandusky and was later an assistant principal at two high schools in Lorain County, west of Cleveland. In 1992, he received his Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University, where he later taught and oversaw a doctoral program. He was a consultant to the Toledo school system, Ohio's fourth largest, before being named superintendent in 2000.

Front-runners Eugene T.W. Sanders, at top, and Robert E. Schiller.