The three new members of the Montgomery County School Board sworn in last night, who made campaign promises to remove School Superintendent Charles Bernardo, now concede that the task will be difficult.

The three, who with one incumbent form a new majority on the seven-member board, also have been softening their statements about Bernardo, whom they pledged to "remove."

"The public should recognize that our pledge wasn't in such negative terms as 'getting rid' of somebody" said Joseph Barse, one of the new members. "We just want to create new leadership."

In addition to replacing Bernardo, the three -- Barse, Eleanor Zappone and Carol Wallace -- promised to redistribute the budget and turn school instruction back to basics, steps also advocated by incumbent Marian Greenblatt.

At issue in "creating new leadership" is a network of legal questions, including whether or not a county school board can simply fire a superintendent in the middle of his contract, and whether the previous board acted legally when it handed Bernardo a four-year extension of his contract last June before the election of the new board members.

The Montgomery County Education Association challenged the extension by filing suit in Circuit Court. Should the court decide that the extension was valid, the new board could only attempt to persuade Bernardo to resign -- which Bernardo says he won't do -- or find a way to purchase the remaining five years of his contract, totaling $267,500.

Many state and county school officials and attorneys interviewed recently couldn't remember a precedent in Maryland for such an action, and consequently several concluded privately that a public body cannot buy out the contract of a public official.

According to state law the power of approval or removal of a local superintendent rests solely with the state school superintendent. The state superintendent can remove a local superintendent on the grounds of immorality, misconduct, incompetence or willful neglect of duty, according to state law.

Barse, Zappone, Wallace and Greenblatt pledged to remove Bernardo because of the 23 school closings that have occurred during his three years in office, his creation of a mandatory black studies course for school employes and his establishment of an innovative but untested computerized instruction system.

When asked about the four board members' promise to remove Bernardo, a school official said, "They campaigned on a platform that would reallocate the budget from the administration to the classroom. Can you imagine what a stink it would cause if they spent over a quarter million dollars to remove the superintendent?"

An attorney closely associated with education said, "This isn't George Allen and the Redskins. That's the public's money they'd be messing with. I think (Bernardo) is sitting pretty and knows it. He's got himself a contract that's already been stamped and approved by the state."

The board members declined to discuss the options they might pursue but said legal counsel would be consulted and that the matter would be discussed at the board's first executive session, scheduled for Tuesday.

"You really put us on the spot," Zappone said when asked about the campaign pledge. "We're a long way from concluding that all avenues are cut off. We're just trying to revamp our approach."

Bernardo said yesterday his contract is "lawful and secure" and appealed for unity with the incoming board. "It is my view that the board and the superintendent will very quickly coalesce into an advisory group for children," he said. "Where disunity exists, the public school system is placed in a very poor competitive position for public and financial support from the County Council," which has the final say on how much money is spent on schools.

Returning board members Elizabeth Spencer, Blair Ewing and Daryl Shaw, who are generally considered supporters of Bernardo, declined to comment on the question.

The earliest date Bernardo could be removed apparently is next October, when his original four-year contract runs out. If the Circuit Court supports the challenge by the teacher's union, the board could terminate Bernardo's employment then.