The St. Mary's County Board of Education has chosen an administrator from Howard County to take over as the new superintendent of public schools.

The unanimous decision by the five-member board to offer the post to Michael J. Martirano, the director of elementary school administration in Howard, came in a closed-door meeting last Thursday night after a week of interviewing the four finalists, said sources familiar with the selection who asked not to be named because the final terms of a contract are not complete.

Martirano, 46, of Columbia, has been notified by the Board of Education of its decision, but he had not signed a contract by Tuesday evening, sources said. State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick also has to approve the selection.

St. Mary's school board Chairman Cathy Allen said Tuesday that she would not discuss the selection "until we are assured that everything meets Dr. Grasmick's approval and our candidate is willing to sign the contract." Board members plan to have a contract in place and publicly announce the choice at a board meeting Wednesday, Allen said.

"The board is reviewing the contract at the present time before it's sent on to the candidate," she said.

Martirano holds a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. He has worked as a science teacher and administrator in Montgomery County as well as director of the Down County Consortium, a program that serves a group of high schools in southern Montgomery. He worked as principal at the elementary, middle and high school levels, including a year at Laurel High School in Prince George's County, before moving to Howard in 2002. Since then, he has been an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, teaching classes in education. He has been recognized as an "outstanding educator" in Prince George's County and "outstanding science teacher" by Maryland, said St. Mary's school officials.

"I hired [Martirano] as a director because of his ability to really rally people together toward student achievement," said Roger L. Plunkett, a former supervisor of Martirano's in Howard. "He has a tremendous focus on school improvement."

Martirano did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

St. Mary's officials have been searching for someone to run the 16,000-student system since the fall, when then-Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson announced she would retire at the end of 2004. The 22 applicants were whittled down to Martirano and three other finalists: John Cox, Charles County assistant superintendent for instruction; Christine Johns, deputy superintendent of the Baltimore County public schools; and Donald Carlisle, superintendent of the Miller Place district in New York.

"I think it's always helpful to have someone coming from within the state of Maryland who is familiar with the way the Maryland State Department of Education approaches things like No Child Left Behind and the school improvement process," Richardson said. "Right from the start that's a great strength. I think another tremendous strength is having been a principal. . . . Being a superintendent is a lot like being a principal, just bigger, and more."

The school system faces several challenges, including a rising student population and need for more classrooms to comply with new rules mandating all-day kindergarten. To find more capacity, school officials have been hunting for sites for new elementary, middle and high schools, Allen said. But of the more than 70 landowners approached by the school system about selling land for a school site, "the lion's share of those responses has been 'not interested at this time,' " Allen said. As for the elementary school site, she said, "we are still in discussions with some parties so I feel really good about it."

Another major issue is discipline at Great Mills High School. A task force convened by interim Superintendent Lorraine Fulton recently reported on the need for stricter measures that officials hope will increase attendance rates and ultimately boost academic performance. On Tuesday, the county commissioners added $600,000 to the fiscal 2006 budget, some of which would pay for six new positions at the high school, including a fifth assistant principal, a safety advocate and a full-time hall monitor.