What a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time, angry protesters from Prince George's County descended on the State House in Annapolis in a quest to save their elected school board. Their language was apocalyptic. Democratic traditions were at stake, they said.

In fact, no such tradition existed. Prince George's never even had an elected board until 1973, when the legislature mandated elections in response to massive rallies of white parents upset about court-ordered busing. But the public didn't seem to care much about electing its school board. Only 15.2 percent of county voters turned out in that first election, and participation has rarely improved since.

Creating an elected school board did not, of course, stop busing. Nor did it solve most of the problems facing the school system. It did, however, provide a launching pad for school board members with ambition for higher office. And it provided a public forum that made talk radio seem tame.

The meltdown of the elected board was slow and painful, but ultimately decisive. Now, a year later, few people are nostalgic about it -- no more expense account scandals, no more diatribes, no Saturday night firings. The chairman no longer tells the legislature about "my inner man," and not just because the chairman is now a woman, but because she is sensible.

Beatrice Tignor grew up on a family farm in Brandywine, rising at 5 a.m. to feed horses, chickens and cows before embarking on a 35-mile bus ride to a segregated public school. Tignor brings a farmer's work ethic and practicality to everything she does. A former state senator, she earned a doctorate from George Washington University, chaired the English Department at Prince George's Community College and is widely respected in the community.

If the old board had a talent for pulling people apart, Tignor has a talent for bringing them together. She and the new appointed board have stayed out of the newspapers and on the job, wringing the politics out of a system that was drenched in it.

The results are impressive. The board's first mission was to balance the books. It imposed strict internal controls after outgoing School Superintendent Iris Metts came up with a surprise $14 million midyear deficit.

Then, in a remarkable exercise of political maturity, the board scaled back Metts's unrealistic proposal to increase spending by 23 percent this year. Members resisted the annual charade performed by many boards of proposing an absurdly high budget and, when it is rejected, blaming poor student achievement on underfunding. In Prince George's, this ploy disguised years of mismanagement, which finally was exposed in a scathing 1998 audit.

The money excuse may disappear soon anyway. If the legislature fully funds the Thornton formula, Prince George's schools will gain $900 million in state education aid during the next six years, which will allow the system to focus on leadership and management. This is why the selection of the system's new superintendent is so critical.

It's also why the list of three finalists for the job is so disappointing. One finalist is running a system not much larger than a single Prince George's high school. Another was recently laid off.

First impressions may be unfair. But these candidates do not seem up to the challenge of leading a troubled system with 17,000 employees and 137,000 students. Clearly, they are not in the same league as the first-class superintendents hired by Fairfax, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

Increasingly, the nation's large, urban systems are moving away from recycled superintendents. They are hiring nontraditional candidates with traditional management skills. Seattle, for example, hired a retired Army general, John Stanford, who turned test scores around. Stanford was so successful that, upon his death, the board recruited another nontraditional candidate, investment banker Joseph Olchefske, who has won similar acclaim. Los Angeles hired former Colorado governor Roy Romer, whose contract is being renewed amid praise for raising student performance and teacher salaries. Twenty-four other jurisdictions, including Chicago, San Diego and New York, have now hired nontraditional superintendents, most of whom are making systemic reforms that have eluded traditional superintendents.

With a $1.1 billion county school budget, the Prince George's board can and should pay top dollar to get a truly top CEO for its schools. But to hire such a leader, the board will have to overcome public education's strong bias in favor of career education bureaucrats. That will require the board to change its course and take some chances.

At this late date, that might seem too risky. But in the long run, sticking with the current crop of candidates might be the greatest risk of all.

The writer is a lawyer and a former Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is tmaloney@jgllaw.com.