Five months after the departure of Bessie LeFra Young as Camden's top education official, the school board is beginning a search for the next superintendent of the 14,000-student district.

The board has hired Ray & Associates, an education executive-search firm based in Iowa, to conduct the process. The first step will be to hold forums Wednesday and Thursday for students, parents, teachers, and community leaders to discuss what they would like in a superintendent.

The qualifications put forward will be used "as a filter" for applicants, said Ray Lamboy, who is on the school board's search subcommittee.

The board wants a superintendent with a "positive image" and experience in an inner-city district, said board member Sara Davis, also on the subcommittee. But with the state's increasing involvement with Camden schools, the job may be a tough sell.

Based on student academic-achievement scores last year, 23 of the district's 26 schools ranked among the 75 worst-performing in New Jersey and were labeled "priority schools."

The district has been assigned to work with one of the state's new Regional Achievement Centers to improve the failing schools and has been strongly encouraged to accept at least one proposal for a public Renaissance school. The alternative schools are similar to charter schools but siphon off more of the district's per-pupil state funding.

In the state's review of the district, released in August, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf suggested that the district could benefit from fresh approaches that would come with having more alternative public schools.

The district could avoid a state takeover, he said, by hiring a superintendent able to "radically transform" its schools.

Young, a former top administrator in the Philadelphia School District, had a year left on her contract when she took early retirement in June. She was paid an annual salary of $244,083.

She faced intense criticism this year from community members and state and city officials for her long absences, which she said were the result of a chronic illness, and the district's failure to demonstrate academic improvement.

But during a speech at her last board meeting, in June, Young cited a lack of support by state officials.

"Every day was a struggle trying to work for the positive, yet working against those who are working against you," she said.

Last week, the state released new regulations for priority and other underachieving schools. One provision states that failure to make adequate academic improvement could lead to a school's being assigned a private educational "turnaround provider" to produce positive results more quickly.

Camden's next superintendent will have a lot of regulations and interventions to contend with. Lamboy says he hoped that the district's strategic plan and the state's ideas and regulations are in sync by the time that person is hired. The district is looking for a leader to give its traditional public schools a "competitive edge," Lamboy said.

A meeting for students to express their ideas about the superintendent search will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Rowan University Conference Center, 200 N. Broadway.

Two meetings for students' parents and guardians will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday: at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, 990 Morgan Blvd., and the Rafael Cordero Molina School, 715 N. Seventh St. A third will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Octavius V. Catto Elementary School, 3100 Westfield Ave.