Montgomery County school officials yesterday were on the verge of finalizing a pay package worth almost $300,000 a year for new school chief Jerry Weast, a contract that would make him the region's best-paid school superintendent and among the most highly compensated in the nation.

Weast would receive a base salary of about $237,000, medical and life insurance benefits, a car allowance, relocation expenses and a hefty retirement package, school officials said. The contract would pay him a salary about 50 percent higher than that of retiring Superintendent Paul L. Vance.

After a day spent on what one board member described as "nitpicking" details of the pay package, school board President Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County) said the "final stages" of negotiation had arrived.

"The board is very optimistic; we expect to come to closure," Felton said. "But the signature isn't there yet. I was hoping we'd have it today."

Another school official said that Felton and Weast reached a verbal agreement on virtually all issues last night and would instruct their lawyers to convert that into contract language today.

School board members, who had been sharply criticized for keeping the search for a new superintendent secret, said they were braced for public reaction to Weast's generous contract.

"It's more than we expected," said Nancy J. King (Upcounty), a school board member. "But we had to pay a lot of money to get him. And I think the public will be pleased."

Weast's base salary would be just behind the $260,000 paid by Dallas and the $245,000 paid by New York City. Weast would receive more than the superintendents of some of the nation's largest urban districts, including Miami, Detroit and Los Angeles. In Chicago, a system with 475,000 students, the superintendent makes $150,000 a year.

Montgomery County, with 128,000 students and 185 schools, is the nation's 20th-largest school system.

The new contract also would make Weast one of the highest-paid public officials in Maryland and pay him far more than any other Montgomery official. Bruce Romer, the county's chief administrative officer, makes about $138,000, and Charles A. Moose, the new police chief, will be paid $125,000.

School board member Stephen N. Abrams (At Large) was unfazed by the disparity.

"It just shows you how important schools are in Montgomery County," Abrams said. "Our obligation was to find a nationally recognized education leader, and we are one of the top school systems in the country. If I put all those factors together, I don't see why anyone should be astounded."

County Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), who chairs the education committee, said that while he is reserving judgment on Weast until he knows more about him, the salary is not a problem.

"If that's what the market is dictating, I don't think we can go for a second-rate candidate," Subin said. "We have to understand what it takes to make Montgomery County a top-notch school system."

School board member Kermit Burnett was less enthusiastic.

"It's higher than I would have liked to have paid compared to where Paul Vance is," he said. "But when Paul came in eight years ago, he had the highest salary in the state of Maryland. So you have to take that into consideration."

Vance made $155,066 this past year. On July 1, under state law, his salary increased to $159,873. His benefits -- including life and health insurance, a car paid for by the board, an expense account and a tax-sheltered annuity -- bring the total compensation package to $221,871, according to school officials.

Board members said the contract was based on Weast's current compensation package, adjusted for the higher cost of living in Montgomery, which they calculated as 25 percent above that in Greensboro. Weast is superintendent of one of the three largest school systems in North Carolina and is one of the highest-paid public officials in that state. On July 1, the Guilford County board, by a 7 to 4 vote, gave Weast an "outstanding" performance review, agreed to extend his contract until 2003 and raised his base salary alone to $190,000.

Montgomery board members knew they would have to match or better not only Weast's salary but also his fairly generous benefits package. The Guilford County board now pays 100 percent of all Weast's medical and dental insurance, $5,700 a year for life insurance, a death benefit at least two times his salary, 25 days of vacation and disability pay at 60 percent of his salary. It also covers membership in professional and civic organizations and any travel to conferences, $300 a month in expenses, a $750 monthly car allowance and a cell phone. The board matches 6 percent of his income to put into a retirement annuity.

Weast developed a reputation for hard bargaining in his employment contracts with other schools systems, and sources said the finalization of his Montgomery agreement stretched into the night yesterday after he asked for several refinements in the details.

Board members declined to describe the changes Weast asked for, but a school official said they included allowing him four paid house-hunting trips to Montgomery rather than two and favorable changes in a provision that would pay his rent here for up to six months.

"He's pushing it," said a board member who asked not to be identified.

Yesterday, Weast could negotiate from a position of strength, as the lone candidate to emerge after the school board's first pick, Elfreda Massie, a deputy superintendent in the Baltimore County school system, withdrew when it was disclosed she twice had filed for personal bankruptcy.

Though Vance, whose contract expired June 30, has agreed to stay on until a new superintendent arrives, the board is under intense pressure to complete the succession.

One of the biggest sticking points in contract negotiations has been transferring Weast's North Carolina pension plan. Since he is fully vested in that state's plan and his current contract with the school board there runs for another four years, in 2003, Weast would be entitled to about $160,000.

Because it will take five years before Weast, 51, is fully vested in Maryland, and because, by state law, his contract can run only four years, board members have agreed in principle to match that sum should they not renew his contract. Both sides have yet to agree on what that lump sum will be.

Sam Mikaelian, with the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, which recruited Weast, said the compensation normally increases when a school system hires a new superintendent.

"In some searches, people are paid 10 to 25 percent over the last superintendent," he said. "These people are not going to come for a lateral move."

And the move to Montgomery, with its close proximity to the nation's capital, clearly is a vertical move for Weast, he said.

"If you want your influence to be felt, your voice is not going to be heard from a small suburban county in North Carolina," he said. "Jerry wants to get involved with things on the state and national level."

Across the country, as school systems decentralize and break into smaller units, the pool of candidates who can run large districts has dwindled. And that pushes salaries up, said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group representing 56 of the largest urban school districts.

Two years ago, the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student New York City school system was the top earner in the country, at $199,000. Now, Casserly said, superintendent salaries of $200,000 and up are becoming more common.

"These are really killer jobs," he said. "In some ways, they're like professional athletes in the sense that they're expected to do a top-flight job, but their career span is very short."

As for Weast jumping into the top earning ranks, Casserly was not surprised.

"These positions have been way underpaid for a long time. The only comparable public institution tends to be hospitals, and heads of hospitals tend to be paid in the $300,000 range," he said. "Given that they really sign their lives over to these jobs while they're there, $230,000 is a perfectly reasonable level of compensation."

CAPTION: Jerry Weast would be one of the nation's highest-paid superintendents.