Three of metro Atlanta’s largest school districts are facing one of the biggest challenges for large districts: finding a new superintendent.

The DeKalb and Atlanta public schools systems, both steeped in deep problems, are in need of new, reform-minded leaders to take over in the next year, observers of the districts say.

It’s a tall order.

Fulton County, for its part, just joined the list of schools in need of a new superintendent. The school district has steered clear of scandal, and a well-regarded superintendent, Cindy Loe, announced Jan. 6 that she’ll retire at the end of the school year for family reasons.

In DeKalb, it’s a different, more complicated scenario. Former superintendent Crawford Lewis was indicted in May on criminal charges. He is accused of being part of a criminal enterprise that benefited school district insiders.

Since then, the DeKalb County Board of Education has hired Ray and Associates to cast a nationwide net for high-profile candidates that can enter the district with no ties to its internal scandals, said Tom Bowen, chairman of the board.

DeKalb, the third largest district in the state, serves more than 100,000 students. For now, Ramona Tyson is the interim superintendent until a permanent choice is made.

“It was the board’s perspective and the public’s perspective that we needed someone without long-term ties to the district that could come in and objectively make changes,” Bowen said. “No one wanted someone with a 20-year relationship [to the district] that might otherwise influence decisions that were made.”

For the Atlanta Public Schools, the process for finding a new superintendent has just begun.

The board met Jan. 6 to hammer out a broad outline for the search. Beverly Hall, the current superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools, said she will not seek a new contract when her present contract expires this summer.

Swirling around the school district are various investigations regarding allegations of cheating on standardized testing in elementary and middle schools that reflect on the performance of the Atlanta district as a whole.

The school system’s board is planning on establishing a timeline for “immediate deliverables” that will aid in the search for a new superintendent, said Keith Bromery, spokesman for the Atlanta public school system.

Currently, the Atlanta board is listening to the advice of the Broad Foundation, which has worked with a number of school districts, about the variety of ways to attract a new superintendent.

The hope right now is to get a new superintendent in place before the start of the new school year. But the Atlanta board is early in its process, Bromery said.

“They are kind of at the start of wrapping their minds around what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.”

Mark Elgart is the CEO of AdvancED, the parent organization of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which has the power to take accreditation from problem school districts that don’t reform.

The school association has been working with DeKalb County and, to a lesser degree, with the Atlanta Public Schools.

Districts that are as large as DeKalb and Atlanta, in general, should conduct an expansive search for a new superintendent, Elgart said.

It won’t necessarily be easy.

“These are high-profile jobs that have a tremendous amount of politics tied to them,” he said.

Being a superintendent, especially in a large, high-profile district creates a relatively small pool of potential candidates, Elgart said.

Many superintendents in smaller districts are content to serve out their careers there. Based on the size of the DeKalb and Atlanta school districts, they will potentially be competing for a dwindling pool of candidates who want to assume the risk of operating a large district.

“Systems like DeKalb are competing with other systems for a declining pool of candidates,” Elgart said. “Not only are you competing, you’re competing with other top-notch school districts across the nation.”

He called the superintendent job “one of the toughest jobs in education.”

Ten years ago, there were more candidates for top jobs in districts like Atlanta and DeKalb.

Since then, a trend has emerged that makes it much riskier for top executives in education. School boards have become more political and are now more often used as political stepping stones to higher office, Elgart said.

No Child Left Behind, federal legislation which ranks schools based mostly on test scores, gives would-be board members an opportunity to use data on a school district as a political tool.

It really started to change with the movement toward accountability,” Elgart said. “Our school systems are not doing as well because of it.”

Meanwhile, newcomers to the board will be watching closely and will have a hand in the decision. Nancy Jester, the school board representative for District 1, said repeatedly throughout her campaign that selecting the right superintendent is the biggest task the current board will assume.

Bowen, for his part, said DeKalb needs a superintendent that has a proven record and will not be intimidated by the “heavy lifting” needed on the first day of work.

The district is in the middle of redrawing its school attendance zones. It is facing layoffs, uncertainty about state and federal funding and is attempting to raise the level of its poorly performing schools. Meanwhile, policies related to ethics and purchasing are being rewritten in an effort to reform past abuses.

What’s the reward for a superintendent who could succeed in DeKalb?

“This is a solid district with a lot of distractions. The person who can get us to turn the corner could clearly reach national prominence,” Bowen said.