The St. Mary's County Board of Education has voted to choose a school administrator from Howard County to be the next superintendent of the growing Southern Maryland system.

In a closed-door meeting Thursday night, the five-member board selected Michael J. Martirano, the director of elementary school administration in Howard, over three other finalists, according to sources familiar with the selection who asked not to be named because the deal isn't complete.

Martirano has been notified by the board but has yet to sign a contract to take charge of the 16,000-student system, the sources said. The state superintendent of schools also has to approve the choice.

Board members would not discuss the selection yesterday. By next Wednesday, they hope to have a contract in place and publicly announce the choice at a board meeting.

"Until we are assured that everything meets [State Superintendent] Dr. [Nancy S.] Grasmick's approval and our candidate is willing to sign the contract, it's not my information to give out," said St. Mary's school board Chairman Cathy Allen. Martirano did not return calls seeking comment.

The search began in the fall after Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson said she would retire at the end of the year. An initial 22 applicants were whittled to Martirano and three other finalists: Christine Johns, deputy superintendent of the Baltimore County public schools; John Cox, Charles County assistant superintendent for instruction; and Donald Carlisle, superintendent of the Miller Place district in New York.

Martirano, 46, holds a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. He worked as a science teacher and administrator in Montgomery County and was principal of Laurel High School in Prince George's County for one year before moving to Howard in the summer of 2002. One of Martirano's former supervisors in Howard, Roger L. Plunkett, said, "He will do a great job."

Martirano is "an intelligent person that will make a difference in St. Mary's County," Plunkett said. "He has a tremendous focus on school improvement."

Among the challenges Martirano could inherit is a dogged search for land for new schools to serve the growing student population and a need for new classrooms for all-day kindergarten. The county has approached more than 70 landowners in its hunt to buy school sites, but "the lion's share of those responses has been 'not interested at this time,' " Allen said.

Also, a task force convened by interim Superintendent Lorraine Fulton recently reported on the need to improve discipline at Great Mills High School.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.