The Prince George's County Board of Education will introduce Delaware Education Secretary Iris T. Metts as the new school superintendent today at a news conference in Upper Marlboro, sources close to the search confirmed yesterday.

Metts, 56, edged out Howard County school administrator Jacqueline F. Brown in a split vote by the nine-member school board, sources said. Metts would be the first woman and second African American to serve as chief administrator of Maryland's largest school system.

Metts's comes to Prince George's as the county faces several major challenges. The system must hire 1,400 teachers by mid-August and build 13 new neighborhood schools in the next six years. Meanwhile, the county has the highest percentage of uncertified teachers in Maryland and the second-lowest average exam scores, and the state has threatened to take over a dozen schools because of their poor academic performance.

Metts got the nod, sources said, because she is the only one of the three finalists who has been a superintendent, and because she now oversees Delaware's 110,000 public school students. Before becoming the top school official in Delaware in 1997, Metts spent seven years as superintendent of the 21,000-student Christina School District in Wilmington, Del.

Prince George's school board members liked the fact that as Christina superintendent, Metts dealt with many of the same issues that Prince George's is facing, sources said. Christina was released from a desegregation order in 1995, and Metts implemented a magnet school program, much like Prince George's, to ease the system's transition to neighborhood schools.

Metts has been described by peers as an educational visionary who developed curriculum to move students into college-oriented programs. Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who still must formally approve Metts's appointment, gave her high marks yesterday. The two superintendents recently worked together on a project to make it easier to hire teachers across state borders by setting similar licensing standards.

"She has worked very hard to raise the bar" for Delaware schools, said Grasmick, who described Metts as a good communicator with the ability to defuse tensions between various interest groups.

But more than one Prince George's school board member voted instead for Brown, a Prince George's County resident and Howard County's coordinator for academic support services, sources said. Brown oversees alternative education, parent and community outreach, academic equity and the black student achievement program for Howard public schools.

Other board members expressed concern that Brown has not been a superintendent and has ties to Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), for whom she acted as campaign treasurer during his first run for office in 1995. Curry did not return a phone call placed to his office yesterday.

A third finalist, Baltimore City schools' chief financial officer, Roger Reese, scored well on budget issues, but some school board members were concerned that he has not been a teacher or principal, sources said.

School board member Marilynn Bland (Clinton) declined to discuss the candidates yesterday, but she said the new superintendent will have the unanimous support of the board.

"I'm confident that if that person receives support, the person will be successful," Bland said. "We as board must be supportive, and I'm willing to do that. I'm ready for a number one school system."

Metts would succeed Jerome Clark, who is retiring June 30 after four years. She would inherit a district of 128,000 students that scores ahead of only Baltimore City on state exams. About 18 percent of the county's 8,000 teachers are uncertified, the highest percentage in the state. Metts did not return calls yesterday.

School board members would not disclose her salary before today's meeting, but they said she would be paid significantly more than Clark's annual base salary of $130,000.

Metts grew up in Richmond and received a bachelor's of science degree from Hampton University, a master's from the College of William and Mary and a doctorate in education from Virginia Tech. She worked in the Richmond public schools for 23 years before serving as a high-level school administrator in Evanston, Ill., from 1987 to 1990.

She then took over the Christina school district, which is 70 percent white and 30 percent black. Christina board members say Metts reorganized the system's administrative staff and helped resolve the school system's financial troubles upon her arrival in 1990.

Her decision to form magnet schools after the desegregation order was lifted in 1995 drew some criticism from some black activists who said she was moving students back to their neighborhood schools too quickly. Currently, three of the magnet schools are thriving, but three others are struggling with low enrollment, Christina school officials said.

Metts also developed programs that put struggling students into smaller classes.

Most of all, Christina board members say, Metts is a good communicator who has been able to build coalitions.

"She's a stand-up person who will tell you what she's thinking and tell you that what she's thinking is right," said Christina board member Michael Guilfoyle. "She's very good at meeting people and telling them what she wants to do, then listening to their response, figuring out the wiggle room and making things happen."

Staff writers Amy Argetsinger and Linda Perlstein contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Iris T. Metts is the state secretary

of education in Delaware.