A North Carolina public school administrator, known as a hard-charging innovator who has raised academic performance and teacher accountability, is the finalist for superintendent of Montgomery County public schools, according to local school officials.

Jerry Weast, 51, has been superintendent of the Guilford County school system in Greensboro, N.C., since 1993. Greensboro has about half the pupils, half the employees and 40 percent of the $1.1 billion budget of Montgomery County. In Greensboro, Weast has overseen a politically thorny merger of three diverse school systems into one, revamped early childhood education and raised academic performance among all students.

"He's excellent," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "I've been impressed with some of the innovations he's made in his district."

Weast and his wife, Linda, who is active in cultural affairs, met privately with Montgomery County Board of Education members for several hours last night at a local hotel. A final decision will be made after school board members interview officials and constituents in Weast's 61,000-student Greensboro district and Weast is introduced to Montgomery County in public forums. Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick must confirm the board's choice.

Weast was recruited by the Illinois-based search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates after the school board's first pick, Elfreda Massie, a deputy superintendent in the Baltimore County school system, withdrew in the wake of disclosures of her personal bankruptcy filings.

Weast, who earns a salary of more than $170,000 a year compared with the $155,000 salary of outgoing Superintendent Paul Vance, was a finalist for the top school job in Dallas earlier this year. That job pays $300,000.

Montgomery school board members have been criticized by local educators and community members for keeping them out of the selection process and for keeping secret the identities of Weast and another finalist, a woman.

"Whoever is appointed is not going to have any public legitimacy," said County Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), who chairs the Education Committee. "This was the wrong way to do it."

Subin and others said Weast would have a lot to prove to Montgomery County, which has the state's second-largest system with nearly 128,000 students, some of the highest-achieving schools in Maryland and the highest percentage of graduates heading to a four-year college. County schools also report a persistent gap in scholastic achievement among black and white students in a district where more than 22 percent of pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Similarly, Guilford County has an increasingly diverse student body. Nearly half the school district's students are minorities -- mostly black -- and about one-third receive free or reduced-price meals.

Weast worked to reduce the achievement gap in Greensboro schools, and during his tenure average reading scores rose among all students, according to Guilford County school system data. Average Scholastic Assessment Test scores also increased slightly among all ethnic groups during his superintendency.

To his supporters, Weast is a "visionary" who looks across the country for the best ideas. He is personable, fiscally responsible and has cultivated the local business community. This year, he was named North Carolina's Superintendent of the Year.

"Jerry's very smooth. And he's always looking for new and better ways of doing things," said Jan Crotts, director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators. "In public schools, that's hard, because there are a lot of people you have to bring along with you before you can make any changes."

That's where Weast has run into problems in the past.

Weast served as superintendent of the largely white, affluent Durham, N.C., county school system from 1989 until 1992, when it merged with the Durham city school district. The new, unified board let Weast go because it wanted less of a reformer and more of a consensus-builder. Weast found a job as superintendent in Sioux Falls, S.D., taking $130,000 in severence pay from Durham, the equivalent of one year's salary.

Eight months later, he accepted the top job in Greensboro, where the suburban, largely white and affluent county system was poised to merge with the city districts of Greensboro and High Point.

There, even as his supporters applaud his achievements, they lament that he has been unable to mend the rifts caused by the 1993 merger.

"That's one of the things we had been hoping would have been done by now," said state Sen. Bill Martin, a member of the Education Committee. "But it has not."

Indeed, Melvin "Skip" Alston, head of the state NAACP, has labeled Weast, school board members and a recently proposed redistricting plan as "racist" and called for Weast's resignation. When Weast was first chosen superintendent over an NAACP-backed candidate, Alston announced: "We do not want him here."

Ray McAllister, a local community activist and a member of the NAACP said he, too, did not support Weast at first, "but his record has more than vindicated him."

"He can get rather passionate really quickly when adults want to do something that he thinks is not in the best interests of kids," said Guilford County board member Dewey Tedder.

Weast, who grew up on a farm in southeast Kansas, also has worked as a superintendent there and in Montana. In all of his superintendent's posts, he brought in computers and modernized programs.

In Greensboro, he is known for creating a well-regarded apprenticeship program for high school students and experimenting with work-force preparation. He has won accolades for pioneering a new approach to early childhood education, knitting together social programs like Head Start and Title I that are usually kept separate. He has introduced programs for 4-year-olds. And he has poured limited resources into lower-achieving schools.

"He really has developed a reputation for being innovative in diverse areas, and his district has been recognized as groundbreaking," said John Dornan, director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, an education think tank. "Jerry is very confident. A hard charger. Someone who has a reputation for coming in and getting things moving. He does not do things slowly."

That style has led to clashes when he demanded more accountability from teachers, Tedder said. "But he's child-focused, and he's taken the heat."

Some believe it may be time for a change. Guilford County is attempting to end busing and somehow preserve racial balance while promoting neighborhood schools. The system doesn't need a reformer, some say, it needs a "feel good" consensus-builder.

"Now, with such divisiveness in the community, it may be in the best interest for him and for the community for him to go," said Kathy Boyette, past president of the Guilford County Council of PTAs. "It's easier to change a superintendent than to change an entire school board."

Guilford school board head Susan Mendenhall said Weast is expected to meet with the board Thursday to receive his annual evaluation and to discuss his contract, which runs through 2002.

"This is very disturbing to me because I don't think we can afford to lose him," she said.

Researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Jerry Weast has led the Guilford County school system in Greensboro, N.C., since 1993.