When Eric J. Smith reached his third anniversary as superintendent of Anne Arundel schools on July 1, he seemed to be fulfilling his promise as a nationally recognized agent of academic change. Scores were up. The budget was flush. Teachers had a 4 percent pay raise. School board meetings seemed to run on autopilot.

Eight weeks later, Smith was sitting in a closed-door session with the school board chairman and their respective attorneys, tendering his resignation.

The unraveling of Smith's superintendency illustrates how quickly a single event -- in this case, an unflattering audit -- can upset the balance of power between a visionary but aloof instructional leader and the school board to which he reports.

Smith did much of what the Anne Arundel school board hired him to do in summer 2002: elevate the stature of an affluent county's underachieving school system that should, by dint of simple demographics, be the rival of elite Howard and Montgomery counties.

He took over a school system whose ranking among two dozen Maryland counties on statewide tests had slipped from 6th to 16th, a system known for chronically low teacher pay and distant sex scandals.

Under his lead, the share of Anne Arundel third-graders proficient in reading on the Maryland School Assessment rose from 64 percent in 2003 to 85 percent in 2005. The 2005 figure places the county between Montgomery (79 percent proficiency) and Howard (88 percent), the standard-bearers. In high schools, Smith lifted the county's ranking from 17th to ninth among 22 Washington area school systems on the Challenge Index, devised by The Washington Post to gauge participation in Advanced Placement testing.

"Believe me, he's far from perfect," said Sam Georgiou, a pharmacist who chairs a countywide Citizen Advisory Council and, unlike many in his group, remains loyal to Smith. "He's arrogant; he's single-minded. But when you take it all, I'd still rather have him, because the vision piece and the academic piece is just superb. I mean, look at where it's gotten us."

Smith came to Anne Arundel from Charlotte, where he had earned and cultivated a national reputation for narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students. A meticulous number cruncher and consummate idea man, he did little to foster relationships with school board members or among teachers and parents, according to numerous board members, parent leaders and a teacher interviewed last week. Although those groups went along with him in good times, the support never ran deep. And when a modest scandal erupted in the 37th month of his tenure, Smith found himself almost without allies.

Two events bookended Smith's resignation, announced Tuesday. One was an internal audit, released in mid-July, that found a litany of questionable business practices within his human resources department. It sparked open warfare between Smith and the board, and, while tempers cooled eventually, questions lingered.

The other was the looming threat of a no-confidence vote against Smith by the teachers union, prompted by a summer survey that found support among teachers in the single digits on matters of trust and cooperation. Smith announced his resignation a day before a union meeting that might have included that vote.

Smith sat down Aug. 23 with Konrad M. Wayson, the school board president, to discuss his future in Anne Arundel. He had surveyed that month's news reports, filled with caustic remarks from no fewer than four of the eight board members, and surmised that he had no future in the county.

In previous years, the board had stood behind Smith. It backed him when, in the first months of his tenure -- and over howls of protest from hundreds of parents -- he put the county's high schools on double-length block-schedule classes; when teachers picketed over pay in 2003; and when race relations melted down at Annapolis High School last year.

"There has never been one program, one initiative, that the superintendent has wanted to do that the board did not support," Wayson said. "I defy you to find one."

The only previous lapse in the relationship between superintendent and school board came in February 2004, when the board publicly broke rank with Smith and cut $7 million from his budget.

The audit, released July 13, proved a far deeper crisis of confidence. It alleged that Smith had awarded substantial pay raises to senior staff and that the hiring division had handed out unorthodox hiring bonuses to top executives brought in by Smith, all without the knowledge of the board. Weeks later, the questions weren't going away.

"He knew that there were people on the board who were going to be relentless in looking into this," said a board member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter was discussed in closed meetings. "Everything was starting to implode."

Smith said his attorney laid out his case as Wayson listened: "It's clear from the recent media coverage and public discussion that the board is no longer supportive of Dr. Smith and does not wish to continue with him as superintendent of schools, and for that reason, Dr. Smith resigns his position."

Wayson remembers the meeting differently. He says Smith asked about potential severance terms, as he had once or twice before, but never said he was resigning.

The two met once more, without lawyers, as Wayson prepared for a closed meeting with the rest of the board. At that meeting, according to both men, Smith told Wayson, "If you have any other comments to make to me, you need to make them, because November 23 is my last day." Wayson replied, "What are you talking about?" Smith said, "I gave my notice."

Smith told the board he would stay only if it guaranteed in writing that it would renew his four-year contract in June.

The school board met Sept. 1, without Smith. The group took three votes, all of them unanimous: Its members would complete Smith's annual evaluation, a chance to dictate new terms in their relationship; they would expect Smith to serve out the remainder of his contract; and they would take no position on whether to renew it.

Five days later, Smith sent out a round of 5 p.m. faxes announcing his Nov. 23 departure. In the two weeks since his Aug. 23 meeting with Wayson, Smith had lined up a job as superintendent in residence at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, a position loose enough to allow time for consulting and, potentially, job-hunting.

Some of Smith's supporters have discussed mounting an effort to change his mind, perhaps by asking a sympathetic board member to call for a vote to guarantee the extension of his contract, thereby forcing the others to show their hands.

Smith has tried to quell such talk.

"My bottom line was, my ability to do the job was compromised," Smith said Friday. "And the children can't wait for that. They've got to get on with the work they have to do, and I have to get on with the work I have to do. . . . It's over."

Eric Smith with Brianna Hoffman during a 2002 visit to Germantown Elementary in Annapolis.