This week, the county school board is sifting applications from search firms to help the school system find a new chief. Plans call for a national search to help secure a replacement for the departed Andre J. Hornsby.

But some people believe the school board may scrap all that and simply choose Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) for a job that could pay a quarter-million dollars or more per year.

The rumor grew so strong that former school board chairman Marcy Canavan trekked to an Upper Marlboro meeting last week to plead with the board to maintain its publicly stated plan and reject what might be called "the Tignor option."

"This school system desperately needs the kind of leadership that can only be found through a professional search," Canavan said. Canavan, who led the board in 1996, was joined at the school board meeting by former board members Beverly K. Beander and Catherine M. Burch.

In June, Tignor was touted as a potential replacement chief by board Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville). Tignor, 66, a former state senator who has a doctorate in education and experience as a teacher and government procurement officer, insisted at the time that she was not a candidate for the job.

But Stone is still talking her up.

"It's logical that people would say Dr. Tignor is eminently qualified to be the CEO," Stone said last week in a brief interview, referring to the formal title of the administrative head of the 199-school system. "She's the board chairman. She knows the system, knows the staff. She has the respect of the community and the staff."

However, Tignor reiterated her previous position. She said the board was moving ahead with choosing a search firm, albeit a bit more slowly than previously planned.

"Nothing has changed," Tignor said last week. "Right now, I am very comfortable with the process. I'm not interested in changing the process."

Interim chief Howard A. Burnett, who took over after Hornsby submitted his resignation May 27, has said repeatedly he is not interested in seeking the job for the long term.

Tignor said she wanted to close the door on rumors that she is angling for the job herself. But she acknowledged that she was not quite slamming the door shut. If the school board's search fails to turn up an acceptable candidate, the board may find itself in a jam . . . and may need to consider all its options.

More on Hornsby's Severance

As a postscript, the formal severance agreement between Andre J. Hornsby and the school board, recently obtained by The Post, contains some intriguing clauses that were previously not made public. Hornsby left his post halfway through a four-year contract, amid an ethics controversy and an FBI investigation into his handling of certain federal funds and a $1 million contract with LeapFrog SchooHouse of Emeryville, Calif., for reading technology software.

This week, Tignor confirmed the FBI is still making inquiries into the matter. She said agents had indicated an interest in speaking further with certain school system officers, although they had not done so with any school board members, to her knowledge.

In the severance package, the board agreed to pay Hornsby's life insurance premiums through June 2006, plus any legal fees directly related to the negotiation of the severance agreement or to the preparation of Hornsby's response to an ethics report issued by Huron Consulting Group Inc. The agreement stipulated that legal expense reimbursements would not exceed $15,000 for any bills Hornsby would submit after May 26.

Those sums were on top of a $125,000 severance and a year's worth of medical and dental insurance, which had been previously reported by The Post. The board offered the severance package to protect itself from a potential lawsuit by Hornsby that might have proven costly.

The severance agreement also stipulated that Tignor would be the only board member designated to provide employment references for Hornsby. Last, it required Hornsby, the school board and individual board members to "refrain from making any derogatory public remarks, either orally or written, about each other or the events involving personnel matters involving the CEO or the CEO's resignation."

Although she has issued several denials, school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor continues to be mentioned as a candidate for schools chief.