The Prince William County School Board is taking a deliberate approach to finding a new superintendent to replace Edward L. Kelly, who is leaving in June after 18 years as head of the school district.

The board plans to weigh proposals from various firms that specialize in searching for superintendents. The board also said it will consider what parents, teachers and community leaders say they would like in a school leader.

The process could take from four to six months after the board chooses a search firm, and that would push an announcement of a new superintendent into early next year, said Alfred Butler, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.

Butler met with the board to discuss ways of finding and hiring a school leader. He encouraged the board to take its time.

"This is the most important decision a board can make," he said at the School Board work session last week.

Board members seemed inclined to take that advice.

"I think every board member wants to ensure that we do this right," said Grant Lattin (Occoquan).

Don Richardson (Gainesville) concurred. "We are lucky in that we have plenty of time to conduct the search," he said.

Butler outlined several methods Virginia school boards have used to hire new superintendents. Some have simply promoted from within their school systems.

Chesterfield County's School Board sought out several candidates, who visited the district and were interviewed over a weekend. From that small group, two were asked to apply and one was hired.

Most districts use a search firm, Butler said. The Virginia School Board Association provides the service, as do other national companies, for about $12,000 to $50,000, plus expenses.

"I would not let $40,000 to $50,000 stand in the way of you doing a really good search," Butler told the board.

Prince William has "plenty of time," said Kenneth E. Underwood, a senior partner of Harold Webb Associates, which has conducted several superintendent searches in Virginia.

"We like 90 days. Ninety days is plenty" from the time the search firm is hired to presenting candidates for board consideration, he said.

A system of Prince William's size and reputation might draw at least 40 applicants, Underwood said. "At least 20, maybe 25 of them we'd really have to dig into."

Underwood said his firm usually recommends six to eight candidates from the smaller group for further consideration.

School leaders can discard those choices and pull from the larger pool of candidates, if necessary.

"You've got a reputation of good schools and high expectations," said Underwood, who lives in Gaithersburg.