Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Tarvald Smith speaks during discussion at a meeting Wednesday in deciding the search criteria for finding a replacement for current school board president Bernard Taylor. Board member Dr. Kenyetta Nelson-Smith, left, listens.

It took the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board 45 minutes Wednesday before it unanimously named Warren Drake as the lone finalist for superintendent, meaning he is very likely the next leader of the second-largest school district in Louisiana.

Drake is being asked to return a week from now, on March 26 at 6 p.m., to interview before the board. The board plans to meet once more, on April 2, to make its official selection.

The Advocate left a message with Drake on Wednesday night seeking comment. If he lands the job, Drake would replace Bernard Taylor, whose three-year contract expires June 30.

A former East Baton Rouge Parish principal who later spent a decade as superintendent of the top-rated Zachary school system, Drake’s selection as a finalist Wednesday was not a surprise. Indeed, his potential candidacy has been the subject of speculation for months.

“Shocked, totally shocked. Totally amazing,” Noel Hammatt, who served on the School Board from 1995 to 2010, told the board after Drake’s name was announced. “Predicted a few months ago.”

Then Hammatt immediately added another bit of speculation about who Drake might name as his No. 2 person: “I just wonder if Michael Tipton is going to be invited.”

The mention of the outgoing executive director of Teach for America for South Louisiana surprised Board President David Tatman.

“I’ve never heard his name mentioned,” Tatman said afterward, referring to Tipton.

The Advocate also left a message with Tipton on Wednesday night seeking comment.

If naming Drake was no surprise, it was a bit surprising no other finalists were named.

Tatman said board members reviewed the qualifications of all 10 applicants when they met behind closed doors Wednesday. While a couple of other applicants were qualified in Tatman’s view and earned positive comment, Drake clearly stood out.

“He understands the local dynamics, the local leadership and the politics,” Tatman said. “I can tell you he is well respected in the community.”

Tatman added that he doesn’t know Drake personally and has met him only once before.

After the meeting, board member Vereta Lee said she considered nominating C. Michael Robinson Jr., an instructional director in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which has more than 120,000 students, as a finalist. But she said she decided not to because she didn’t see any support from her fellow board members.

Lee said she hopes Drake proves to be a uniter and said she plans to ask him next week what he will do to make that happen.

“I’ve gotten calls from people saying he can bring the system together,” Lee said.

If Drake is ultimately chosen, he will be the first white East Baton Rouge Parish school superintendent since Clayton Wilcox, who left in 2004; Wilcox is part Hispanic. Drake also would be the first person who has been an employee of the school system to land the top job since Charlotte Placide, who served as superintendent from 2004 to 2009. Placide has submitted a letter of recommendation on Drake’s behalf.

Drake, 63, left Zachary in 2012 to become an administrator with the Louisiana Department of Education. He spent most of his career, though, with East Baton Rouge Parish, including serving as Tara High School principal from 1996 to 2002, and he knows many current and former school leaders.

“What you’re saying is that Warren Drake is going to be our new superintendent?” asked a confused Pearl Porter, a parent activist in north Baton Rouge.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion, by the process,” board member Tarvald Smith responded.

Smith said Drake still has to prove himself in his March 26 board interview, scheduled to take place next door to the School Board Office, in the Instructional Resource Center, 1022 S. Foster Drive.

“(Drake) may come before this board and stink up the joint,” Smith said. “I doubt it, but he could.”

Smith also noted that the School Board has named a lone finalist before and that person didn’t get the job.

He was referring to the January 2012 naming of Rockdale County, Georgia, Superintendent Samuel King as the lone finalist for superintendent, out of a field of six semifinalists. Two weeks later, King unexpectedly withdrew amid speculation he was forced out of contention. A month later, after a second round of searching, the board settled on Taylor, who had run the Grand Rapids, Michigan, school system for the previous five years.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.