Michael Durso, right, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, at a recent board meeting. (Courtesy of Montgomery County Public Schools)

Montgomery County’s school leaders say their national search for a new superintendent has produced an array of candidates, with some officials voicing optimism that a new schools chief could be named as early as March.

School board members say they are pleased with the range of candidates who have applied for the top job in Maryland’s largest school system, but they would not provide details, saying they adopted a confidential process to attract the best applicants.

“Our pool of candidates has been impressive,” said Board of Education President Michael Durso.

S. Dallas Dance, schools superintendent in Baltimore County, and Renee A. Foose, superintendent in Howard County, are among candidates who could be in play as the process heads into a critical period in the coming months, according to a person familiar with board discussions who requested anonymity to speak freely about a sensitive personnel process.

Dance declined to comment through Baltimore County schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson. A spokesman for Foose said she did not apply for the job: “She’s the superintendent in Howard County, and that’s her focus,” said spokesman John White.

Montgomery school officials declined to comment on possible candidates.

“I think you’re probably going to get a lot of names,” Durso said. “There’s always going to be speculation.”

The effort is the second iteration of a search process that dates to last February, when Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua P. Starr announced his resignation amid reports that he lacked the votes needed to win a new four-year contract.

The school board hired an Illinois-based firm — Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates — and reviewed 25 applicants to replace Starr, interviewing seven in person. One 36-year-old educator emerged as a “preferred” candidate: Andrew Houlihan, the chief academic officer for Houston’s public schools.

But Houlihan withdrew three days after his name surfaced publicly, saying in a letter that the job was “not the right fit for me, my family or the system as a whole.” His decision came as some in Montgomery’s school community questioned whether he had the seasoning needed for the 156,000-student system, with 202 schools.

Following the misfire, board members suspended their search, deciding instead to ask interim superintendent Larry A. Bowers to stay on the job for an extra school year. Bowers, with a career of more than 35 years in the district, plans to retire this summer.

The second phase of the search started in October and it has been more promising, board members said. This time, the hunt began ahead of the traditional cycle for hiring superintendents, without the same time pressures.

“We are ahead of the timeline, and last time we were behind the timeline,” board member Phil Kauffman said.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski said the board is better prepared.

“I felt like the last time was very rushed,” she said. “We’re taking our time and doing a wide search, and I feel confident that we will end up with the right person for the job.”

Other large school systems that have recently been vying for top superintendent candidates — of which there is a limited pool — are Minneapolis and Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest system.

Many searches take six to nine months, said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable. The job requires a mix of political, educational and leadership skills — and few people have all three, he said.

“These are large, complex organizations, so leading them is akin to leading a large corporation in many ways, in the glare of publicity,” he said.

In Montgomery, the board came under fire last school year for its handling of Starr’s resignation and Houlihan’s candidacy. The announcement of Houlihan’s candidacy came before the board considered input from its designated community panel.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the school superintendents association, said he hopes the Montgomery board has improved its process.

“I can only hope the board learned from their last go-round and will conduct a search in a more efficient and effective manner than they did last time,” said Domenech, a onetime superintendent in Fairfax County, Va.

Montgomery’s board members never publicly explained their diminished support for Starr, but officials close to the matter cited concerns including too little progress on the county’s achievement gap, a lack of a coherent vision for principals and a personal style that could be dismissive.

In seeking a successor, board members have cited the importance of recognizing the county’s diversity, communicating well, boosting student performance and narrowing the achievement gap.

“We’re a system that is a high-performing system, and I don’t think we need major changes,” Kauffman said. “What we need is leadership and someone who understands the challenges we’re facing. I’m confident that we will be able to find that person.”

Smondrowski said local familiarity also is key: “For me, it’s very important that we have someone that truly understands Montgomery County and all of its dynamics, and I am pleased that we have taken the time to really do it right.”

Montgomery is facing a budget crunch as it grapples with a major enrollment surge. The school system has grown by more than 18,000 students since 2008, with an increasing number who live at or near the poverty level.

Board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said she believes Montgomery has continued to attract strong candidates.“I feel like there’s been a lot of interest in this position,” she said.

Many expressed hope that the search would succeed and put to rest a concern that has lingered for a year.

“They’ve got to have a candidate that they’re prepared to commit to for more than one contract,” said Byron Johns, education committee chairman of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP. “If we turn another one every few years, we’re getting nowhere. The statistics are very clear: The districts that perform, they’ve had stability at the top.”

Frances Frost, president of Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, said she hopes that the board has found a deep pool of candidates as a result of starting the search earlier and learning from experience.

“I’m hoping for someone who is ready to hit the ground running,” she said.