The Prince William County School Board is facing a challenge it hasn't had in nearly two decades: finding someone new to lead the school system.

Edward L. Kelly, now beginning his 18th year as head of the district, plans to leave at the end of this school year. Although Kelly indicated he wanted to stay two more years, a majority of the board members said they wanted to make a change, prompting him to withdraw his request for a contract extension.

The School Board will discuss its search plans at a work session Sept. 29. None of the board members interviewed last week said they wanted to see a dramatic shakeup in management.

"I'm not looking at this change as a revolutionary change; I see it more as an evolutionary change," said Don Richardson (Gainesville). "The challenges we face do not require us to turn everything upside down and start over."

But the School Board is starting its search at a time when the pool of qualified candidates is shrinking, according to executives of search firms that specialize in filling top school positions across the country. Officials at those firms say it can be difficult to lure candidates away from their districts to jobs that often offer much more pressure for not much more pay.

Thomas Jacobson, one of the founders of McPherson & Jacobson in Omaha, opened his search firm in 1991. At the time, his firm primarily screened candidates and presented names to school boards.

Now, "I've got 52 consultants around the country and they spend a lot of time one-on-one with different candidates," trying to lure good people away from jobs where they may already be quite content, Jacobson said. His firm conducts 25 to 30 principal and superintendent searches a year, for $5,000 to $25,000, according to a survey of search firms in a magazine published by the American Association of School Administrators.

"We're all fishing from the same pond, and the pond is becoming shallower by the day," said Jacqueline Roy of J.A. Roy Associates in Dennisport, Mass. The firm conducts superintendent searches primarily in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions.

But Jacobson said that Prince William has several factors in its favor. "You've got a great location where people want to go," he said. The county is growing and has resources, unlike some communities across the country. "You'd much rather open a school than close one," he said.

Also, the challenge of running a large, urbanizing district is its own lure. "Superintendents are not afraid of challenges. That's what attracted us to the business in the first place," said Jacobson, a former superintendent. "You just need to let us know what the challenges are."

Terre Davis, a former superintendent and head of the search firm TD and Associates in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the School Board is making the right move by starting early. This is the time to bring in comments from principals, teachers, parents and students, she said.

"The key thing is to find out what the needs are," Davis said. Even if boards end up hiring someone from within their district, it's still wise to create a profile of the perfect candidate, she said. "You see the profile, and then see if they fit it."

Roy also said gathering community input is important. "I think it really makes people feel like they've been heard and that they've been listened to," she said. "I can't say enough about that piece [of the process]." And it's also helpful if the board decides to use a search firm, because it helps the consultant learn about the needs of a particular community.

But the community cannot be involved in every step of the process, search executives say. Although in the past candidates might be interviewed by committees of parents, teachers and others, confidentiality is too important now.

"They don't want to jeopardize their own positions with their boards," Roy said.

Fairfax School Board Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said the process worked well when the county hired its new superintendent, Jack D. Dale, from the Frederick County school district in Maryland.

"They should be prepared. It takes a big commitment of time for the board," Smith said. "But it's also something that can bring a board closer together."

Superintendent Edward L. Kelly will step down after this school year.