Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston is the "preferred finalist" for the top schools job in Virginia Beach, Va., where officials hope to sign a contract with him within a month.
Virginia Beach school board officials said they hope that Hairston will be on the job there by early next year.
Daniel D. Edwards, chairman of the Virginia Beach school board, said last night that Hairston was identified early in the search process as a finalist among six others.
"He's done so much for the system up there and he's a good, firm, strong leader, which we had in our past superintendent," Edwards said. "And we're looking for someone who's going to come in and provide good, strong leadership. And we believe he's going to do that."
Hairston, 58, has been superintendent in Baltimore County since 2000; he is the first African-American to hold the position. Attempts to reach him for comment last night were unsuccessful.
Baltimore County school board members and others expressed surprise that Hairston was considering leaving the 108,000-student school system, the country's 24th largest.
Board member John A. Hayden III joked that he "turned up his pacemaker" when he learned of the news, and said he would like Hairston to stay.
"I think Joe has generally done a good job with us," Hayden said.
Board member Warren Hayman said he wasn't surprised by the news. "Good superintendents are hard to find," he said.
"I think it's the hazard of the profession that school boards have to deal with," he added.
Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the union has had a collaborative relationship with Hairston.
"We are anxious to find out if he is staying or leaving," she said, with contract negotiations beginning soon and pressing issues such as teacher workload and retention facing the district.
Virginia Beach school officials noted several of Hairston's successes in their announcement. Under Hairston's leadership, the majority of Baltimore County schools met annual targets on state tests, and the county's average SAT scores have risen and now exceed the national average.
Edwards said he expects the 11-member school board to offer Hairston a contract within 30 days, after processing background and reference checks and visiting Baltimore County next week.
Virginia Beach is a smaller school district than Baltimore County, with 75,000 students. However, Hairston grew up in Florida and Virginia; some of his family live there now.
According to news reports, the former Virginia Beach superintendent, Timothy R. Jenney, earned a $192,232 salary when he retired in June for an executive position at Regent University, a Christian school headed by television evangelist Pat Robertson.
Hairston's base salary is $239,200. County school board members praised Hairston last year when they gave him a $45,000 raise.
Many describe him as quiet, cerebral and dedicated to supporting struggling schools.
After graduating from what is now University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Hairston spent much of his career in Maryland. He taught middle and high school in Prince George's County and served as a high school principal and assistant superintendent there.
Hairston holds advanced degrees from Virginia Tech and American University. He became school superintendent in Clayton County, Ga., in 1995, but left the position in early 2000 after conflicts with school board members there.
Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.