For weeks, the candidates in Tuesday's D.C. Board of Education election have bombarded each other with charges and counter-charges. They have fervently accused one another of being too concerned about hidden political agendas to really care about the city's perennially troubled public schools.

It has been a politically charged struggle among 23 varied candidates -- incumbents convinced that the job they have been doing is better than some people claim, and recycled, reborn and would-be politicians, eager for membership in the exclusive club of 25 who make up the District's local elected leadership.

There are also teachers and parents, tired of banging their heads against a brick wall in the board room at the Presidential Building and hoping the voters will catapult them to the other side of the dais, where the decisions are made.

And then there are the real politicians, who are eager to bestow their blessings on some likely winners, while exercising their own new political muscles.

The excitement in the political arena -- and it often doesn't go much farther -- perhaps could not come at a more critical time. The schools are getting better, but are still in bad shape. Enrollment is falling off, the budget is tight, test scores are still low. And, some contend, the board meetings are circuses.

"Education is at a crucial point right now," said Mayor Marion Barry, who has endorsed a full slate of six candidates -- enough to make a voting majority on the 11-member board if they all win. "Confidence in the schools is at an all-time low. In our fifth year of home rule, we need a board that inspires confidence."

But the voters will have to decide Tuesday if all this energy comes too late. Much is being said, but is anyone still listening?

Few clear differneces separate the candidates in any way -- the challengers from the incumbents, the Barry slate from the others, the entire group of candidates from those already on the board. And again, as in the past, voter turnout is expected to be low -- about 10 percent of the city's 249,029 registered voters.

As a result, a cloud has settled over this election, the sixth regularly scheduled contest since 1968, when the city chose its own school board for the first time in a century. In the eyes of several school activists, from teenagers to PTA chiefs, the school board race has been unable to break through a barrier of alienation and apathy.

"I don't think it's going to matter who wins. It's not going to make much difference," said 20-year-old Darlene Stewart, cochairman of the D.C. Youth Congress, which held five candidate forums in District high schools to increase awareness among seniors.

"I don't think a lot of candidates are taking it very seriously. They don't look upon the school board as being a very serious body. That's kind of unfair to young people," Stewart said.

"We sell voting. We say if you vote, you have power," said Phyllis Young, president of the Ward 4 Council on Education, a community group. "But there are some people who are putting their time into activities and finding they're powerless to do something.

"It's almost hopeless. There's nothing anyone can do. So they say, let me just take my kids out [of the publicschools] and save my kids. People give up. They get tired."

Still other city parents are convinced that the schools are not failing. They would rather spend their time talking to teachers and school counselors than listening to school board candidates.

It was the mayor's fielding of a slate of candidates -- which he did not make official until Friday -- that has added political flavor to the campaign. m

Barry's involvement in the race has turned off some parents, who blame him for making the school board too political. But Barry defends the right of the mayor and City Council to take sides in the race for the board, which spends about one of every five city budget dollars.

"Anytime you're spending about $300 million out of our budget, it is right for the City Council and the mayor to be concerned," Barry said last week.

During the 23-day teachers' strike in March, efforts to end the dispute were hampered by poor relations between Barry and some board members, the majority of whom opposed his intervention into an area that by law is their domain.

None of those endorsed by Barry were members of that board. If all the candidates he endorsed were elected, they could form a new board majority.

But Barry said yesterday he is not trying to control the board.

"This board must set the tone for education," Barry said. "They have to be role models as opposed to some of the nonsense that's gone on there before." bHe said he is supporting those on his ticket "not because we always agree on everything, but because we can disagree without being disagreeable."

Fielding a slate designed to restore order to the school board is nothing new for Marion Barry. That was his platform in 1971 when he ran with five others for seats on the board. Barry won, and, he boasted last week, has won every election he has been involved in since.

Since he has become mayor, he has used every available oppoortunity to show his political clout, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Walter E. Washington, who did not get involved in school board contests.

Barry actively supported the selection of John Ray as his temporary replacement on the City Council and then, laying his political prestige on the line, put his still young organization at Ray's disposal in the May 1 special election to chose a regular successor. Ray won.

This time, Barry has taken a lower profile, saving his official endorsement until four days before the election and not bothering to trot out the entire slate of candidates. The more limited involvement was appropriate, Barry said last week, because some candidates did not need more help and because he is afraid of using up political IOUs too quickly by constantly asking his allies to work for others.

Still, Barry's involvement has been an issue in the campaign, best dramatized by an unsigned flier handed out at some candidates forums, showing a caricature of the mayor dangling six puppets on strings. "Save Our Schools . . . From This SLATE!" the flier blares.

Barry has also been criticized because at the same time he has proclaimed the importance of public education, he has proposed a $10 million cut in school funds for next year. Even some of those he endorsed denounced the reduction, which Barry said was justified because of declining school enrollments.

Minnie S. Woodson, the board president and representative from Ward 7, is not seeking reelection. But five other incumbents are, and three of them appear to face extremely tough challenges.

Conrad P. Smith, 47, the one-time board president and representative from Ward 1, is getting his strongest opposition this year from Frank Smith Jr., a 37-year-old urban planner who ran for City Council last year and has Barry's endorsement in this race.

Also running in the Ward 1 race are activist Reginald H. Booker, 38; Metro mechanic Anwar S. Saleem, 25, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner James W. Curry, 50.

In Ward 4 in upper Northwest Washington, three challengers are making a strong effort to unseat incumbent Victoria T. Street, a 62-year-old retired teacher, who was criticized in this teacher-rich ward for supporting an effort to take the Washington Teacher Union to court when it struck the schools earlier this year.

Barry's candidate in the race is 32-year-old high school counselor Linda W. Cropp, the wife of the mayor's executive secretary, Dwight S. Cropp. Philip Pannell, 29, program director of the Howard University Center for Sickle Cell Disease and a veteran of several ward campaigns, is also running, along with Laplois Ashford, 44, director of the Southeast Neighborhood House. Ashford was once president of the Rochester, N.Y. Board of (text omitted from source)

The Ward 6 race appears to be a hear-on clash between incumbent John E. Warren, 33, a public management specialist who has the support of the teachers union, and the Lorraine R. Bennett, 37, a former PTA president, who has Barry's endorsement.

The third candidate in the race, 30-year-old youth counselor Linda J. Gilbert, is expected to draw votes from both of the other candidates.

Lawyer Bettie G. Benjamin, the incumbent in Ward 5, appears more likely than some incumbents to be returned to the board, although she faces some tough opposition from Matthew F. Shannon, 30, the mayor's special assistant for labor and religious affairs who received Barry's support.

Eugene Kinlow, the only other incumbent is expected to be reelected convincingly as an at-large board member.Kinlow, who was first elected in the May 1 special election, has received Barry's endorsement.

Kinlow faces his toughest challenge from 45-year-old Jeanette Feely, a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School who has the support of the Washington Teachers Union.

The other three at-large candidates have all run for office before. They are Charlotte R. Holmes, 52, a budget analyst for the federal government; 29-year-old Joseph Webb, an adult educator, and Stuart Rosenblatt, 28, an organizer for the U.S. Labor Party.

The contest to replace Woodson in Ward 7 is essentially a three-way race between Ballou High School teacher Emily Y. Washington, 35, federal government lawyer Nate Bush, 30, and toolmaker Edward L. Hancock, 57. The fourth candidate in the contest is America C. Nelson, a retired school teacher.

Bush has the support of both Barry and the teachers' union. Hancock, who served on the board from 1969 to 1972, has been endorsed by Willie J. Hardy, the ward's representative on the city council.

The teachers union has also endorsed Frank Smith in Ward 1, Cropp in Ward 4 and Benjamin in Ward 5. Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-at large), a former school board member, has endorsed Cropp, Kinlow and Bennett. Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) is supporting Bennett in Ward 6, and Council member John Ray (D-at large) is supporting Barry's candidates. Ray says that is a coincidence.