A 39-year-old Virginia state official without experience in education has suddenly emerged as a front-runner to be the next superintendent of the District's public schools, people close to the search process said last night.

Maurice A. Jones, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services since 2002, received support yesterday afternoon in a conference call among members of a panel that includes Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and officials on the D.C. Council and Board of Education, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. The seven-member panel is responsible for recommending a candidate to the Board of Education.

The emergence of Jones is a surprising turn in the long-running effort to replace Paul L. Vance, who resigned in November after three years at the helm of the 64,000-student system. A 17-member search committee forwarded the names of four candidates to the smaller panel last month. Jones was not one of those finalists and was not among those interviewed by the search committee. The seven-member panel interviewed him for the first time Monday.

Although that panel includes school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and two other board members, it is not certain that Jones will have the support of the full nine-member board, which has the sole authority to hire the superintendent.

If Jones were selected, the District would join other major cities -- including New York, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle -- that have turned to people outside the education field to reform their troubled school systems.

Superintendent Eugene T.W. Sanders of Toledo and State Superintendent Robert E. Schiller of Illinois had emerged from last month's interviews as the leading contenders for the D.C. post.

Sanders is still well regarded and is a close second choice if Jones is not selected or does not accept the job, but the committee has lost interest in Schiller, said the sources, who spoke on the condition they not be identified because they had been directed not to speak about the selection process.

Sanders, a 47-year-old educator who has led the 35,000-student Toledo school district since 2000, met with Williams, Cafritz and City Administrator Robert C. Bobb last Thursday in Boston, where the officials were attending the Democratic National Convention, according to the people close to the search.

After returning to Toledo, they said, Sanders flew to Washington for a meeting Sunday with D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) and Carolyn N. Graham, a mayoral appointee to the school board. The next day, the panel of city and school officials met with Jones.

In an interview last night, Jones acknowledged that he was interviewed for the superintendency.

"I don't know where I rank," he said. "I was honored that they would consider me. I don't come from a traditional educational background, but anyone who knows me knows that one of my biggest passions is youth and youth development. It's certainly an opportunity that I have a lot of excitement about."

Williams declined to comment on the search yesterday. "This is an ongoing process, and people are working very hard on it," he said in an interview at the Washington Convention Center, where he spoke to a gathering of minority journalists.

A person close to the search process said last night that Jones impressed the mayor and other officials with his intelligence and dynamism. "He's bright, energetic and a breath of fresh air," the person said.

Jones rose from humble origins to the top levels of Virginia government. He grew up in Kenbridge, Va., a town of 1,500 in rural Lunenberg County, raised by his grandfather, a retired farmer and saw mill worker, and his grandmother, who is now deceased.

Jones graduated in 1986 from Hampden-Sydney College, a small, private and all-male school where he was valedictorian and the first African American student body president. He won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in England and received a master's degree in international relations in 1988.

He enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, graduating in 1992. "I don't know if you have ever pulled tobacco, but that is all the incentive you will ever need to go to college," he said this spring in an interview with the law school's alumni magazine.

Over the next decade, Jones worked in the private sector and the federal government. He practiced law at the firm of Hunton & Williams from 1992 to 1995, before joining the U.S. Department of the Treasury. From 1996 to 2001, he was legal counsel, deputy director for policy and programs and finally director of the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, a unit of the Treasury Department that helps nonprofit groups serving urban and rural communities. The fund is loosely modeled on the World Bank.

Jones then served as a partner in Venture Philanthropy Partners, a Reston-based charity that invests in groups that serve poor children in the Washington area. In January 2002, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) appointed him as his deputy chief of staff. Warner, who was elected in 2001, helped establish the charity in 2000 with businessmen Mario Morino and Raul Fernandez.

In October 2002, Jones was appointed commissioner of social services, managing a $1.6 billion budget and more than 1,500 employees and overseeing 121 local agencies. He and his wife, a corporate lawyer, have a 21-month-old daughter.

Staff writer Valerie Strauss and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.