In searching for a new county schools chief, the Santa Clara County Board of Education wants a proven leader, but the right candidate need not have a track record in schools -- or even have an education credential.

Trustees are dangling a $295,000 starting salary, with retirement benefits and other perks, to entice candidates to lead the sprawling county Office of Education. They're looking in government, business and the non-profit sector for a replacement for Charles Weis, who plans to retire in June.

The seven-member board is latching on to a trend in education: Bring in outsiders to reform schools.

In doing so, however, school trustees have riled up fierce opposition from the state's larger teachers union and must win state permission to buck the rules.

But Joseph Di Salvo, president of the county school board, said public education is changing rapidly and that philanthropic dollars today are going disproportionately to charter schools, at the expense of traditional public schools.

"We need somebody who understands that," Di Salvo said.

That rationale doesn't fly with unions who represent employees at the county education office.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Lisa Vieler of the California Teachers Association. "We are an industry that is all about licensure, credentialing, having to be able to prove you have the applied knowledge and skills to do the job."

Plus, she said, everything the county office does -- providing business and other services to the county's 31 school districts, overseeing budgets, and running preschools and schools for the disabled and for juvenile offenders -- is prescribed by the Education Code.

Unions believe the new education chief should have the right piece of paper certifying proper training, Vieler said.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents support staff and other non-teachers, agrees with the teachers union.

At the heart of much of the union opposition is distrust of the county board, heightened in recent weeks by votes favoring new and existing charter schools over the objection of local school districts.

"We don't trust their thinking or their decision-making process," Vieler said about the county board members.

The board on Tuesday voted 6 to 1, with trustee Leon Beauchman dissenting, to seek a waiver from the state requirement that superintendents have a California administrative services credential.

While the Santa Clara County board could become the first countywide board in the state to hire a superintendent from outside education, it's hardly a trail blazer.

In recent years schools, led by large urban districts, have increasingly signed up noted non-school leaders. Los Angeles Unified was led for six years by former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who was followed by retired Vice-admiral David L. Brewer III.

In New York City, publishing executive Catherine P. Black lasted only three months as schools chief; San Diego Unified hired Alan Bersin, a federal prosecutor who later became state education secretary.

"It's really the wave of the future," said Gary Ray, head of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based firm handling the county education office's superintendent search. And it's no coincidence that his firm, Ray and Associates, advised the Oakland and Sacramento school districts in selecting their current superintendents, both from outside the education establishment.

But critics say that school boards focus too narrowly on leadership qualities, at the expense of finding someone who has the experience and ability to improve education.

The county board's quest for a waiver is not a done deal. It requires a recommendation from the state superintendent of schools -- Tom Torlakson, who was elected with the support of teachers' unions-- and ultimate approval from a state board of education that is considered more teacher friendly than its predecessor board.

The salary alone is sure to attract a large field. It's the most for any county superintendent in the state, according to education lobbyist Kevin Gordon.

But, Di Salvo noted, it's still less than the $300,000-plus that Weis makes.

"If we're going to truly attract the highest caliber candidate, it had to be around that figure," Di Salvo said.

He said he's hoping the board gets to look at non-traditional candidates. "It's illogical,'' he said, "to try to limit the pool."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775.