On Monday afternoon, the Prince George's County school board took another concrete step toward finding a new schools chief: It announced the choice of a search firm.

Ray and Associates Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, will help the board seek local and national candidates for a permanent successor to the departed Andre J. Hornsby and interim chief Howard A. Burnett.

But it remains unclear how soon the board will act to hire a new leader. The process of finding Ray and Associates took nearly four months after Hornsby submitted his resignation May 27. Originally, board members had hoped to have a search firm in place and the beginnings of a community advisory board by the end of August.

What's more, with each passing month, the board itself is nearing the onset of a political debate over its own successor. School board elections, suspended in 2002 when the state abolished an elected board, will resume next year under state law. The current board, appointed by a governor and county executive who are no longer in office, will start to feel more heat from the community on a range of issues as candidates emerge to vie for the nine school board seats.

The political flux could be a significant obstacle to finding candidates willing to lead one of the two largest school systems in Maryland and one of the 20 largest in the nation. The county system has 199 schools, an estimated 139,000 students and an annual budget of nearly $1.4 billion.

School board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) signaled that the search may move at a deliberate pace.

"We are confident that Ray and Associates will continue to assist us in conducting a professional and efficient search for a leader to build upon the academic progress made by our students, particularly during the last two years," Tignor said in a statement. "However, we will not be rushed."

Tignor herself has sought repeatedly to quash speculation that she may wind up as the next schools chief. She has said that she is sticking with the search process and has no plans to become a candidate. Her position, however, does not entirely rule out a possible jump from the chairman's seat at the center of the dais to the schools chief's chair facing opposite at school headquarters in Upper Marlboro.

Burnett has said repeatedly that he will not be a candidate for the job on a permanent basis. Hornsby left under an ethics cloud but denied any wrongdoing. He had served almost two years of a four-year contract, earning $250,000 a year.

The school board now will seek to create a search committee to act as a community sounding board.

Ray and Associates will be paid at least $35,000 under its arrangement with the school board, plus expenses.

The firm previously worked briefly on a recent Howard County superintendent search. Other clients have included school systems in Prince William County; Fort Worth, Texas; Oklahoma City; Little Rock, Ark.; Newport News, Va.; Tempe, Ariz.; and El Paso, Texas, according to firm president Gary L. Ray. One of his largest clients, with more than 120,000 students, is the Duval County system in Florida.

Ray said he aims to find candidates who have a proven track record of meeting the challenges of particular systems. He said one key is "being honest" with candidates about those challenges.

"I'm pretty familiar that there's been some failures in the district," Ray said of the Prince George's school leadership turnover. "I'm not going into it with my eyes closed. I did my homework."

Coming Full Circle

The new Laurel High School principal, Dwayne Jones, is taking over an institution where he has filled many roles: student, graduate (class of 1981), teacher (physical education, health, geography), coach (basketball, football) and assistant principal.

"This is the completion of my book," Jones said in a telephone interview after he was named to replace Theo Cramer. Jones, 42, lives in Bowie. He said he has no plans to follow Cramer to St. Mary's County.

"I'll be here for a while, okay?" Jones said.

In another development at Laurel, Jones said the school has recruited a mathematics teacher who had evacuated New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. The teacher, Alison Rose, joins two evacuee students at the school. "She was remarkably upbeat when she got here," Jones said.