Despite all the talk about the need to improve the District's troubled public school system, the city seems unwilling to put its money where its mouth is.

The salary of the D.C. school superintendent is limited by law to $55,400 a year. That sounds like a lot of money, and in some ways, it is -- but it shrinks when compared to the salaries of other top school administrators around the country.

And although other factors -- a cooperative school board, for example, or a deluxe package of fringe benefits -- can sometimes convince a top candidate to take less money, the absence of such factors here seems to predestine that the District, in its current search for a permanent superintendent, will get what it is willing to pay for.

"There's a pedestrian mentality around here," said at-large school board member Barbara Lett Simmons. "People hear the figure and think that's all the money in the world. But you have a hard time attracting people when that's all that you're willing to pay."

Simmons said the limitation, which was approved by the City Council, is an outgrowth of the city's overall salary structure, which forbids any employe to make more than the mayor's $64,000 a year.

In other jurisdictions, however, the school superintendent often makes more than the mayor. And here in the District, officials have granted an exemption to the director of the D.C. convention center, who will make $75,000 a year -- nearly 50 percent more than the school superintendent's salary.

"That's very low," James T. Guines, the current acting superintendent, said of the pay for the post that he wants permanently. "For a city this size, you're talking at least $65,000 to $70,000. In no way has the District attracted some of the big names among school superintendents, and I think that's directly attributable to salary."

Guines may have a vested interest in favoring a higher salary for the job. But there is no denying that $54,400 for a school system of the District's size -- about 100,000 students, according to Guines -- is comparatively low, even for the Washington area.

The city of Alexandria, for example, with an enrollment of only 10,800 students, pays its superintendent $55,000. Fairfax County, with 127,500 students, pays $64,015 to its superintendent.

Moreover, being a superintendent of schools in a major urban center, with all the attendant problems, is generally thought by educators to be worthy of some sort of combat pay.

Fractious school boards and shrinking budgets are the norm, and the average length of time a person stays in such jobs is only three or four years. The litany of problems facing the D.C. schools hardly needs repeating and is not comparable to the situation in a suburban school district like Fairfax, where the student population is largely homogeneous, affluent and relatively motivated.

Baltimore pays its superintendent about $65,000. Los Angeles, about $75,000. San Diego, more than $60,000. And Chicago, $125,000.

"I don't think money counts for everything," said Robert L. Alioto, superintendent of schools in San Francisco. Alioto makes only a little more than the D.C. superintendent -- "just" $55,000, in a system that has only about 60,000 students.

"Don't take this as a basis of comparison," he said. "Our pay is very low -- the lowest of any big city in California and much lower than most of the suburbs."

Alioto said "the quality of the board of education" is as important to most superintendents as money. The D.C. school board is known in educational circles around the country, though, for having gone through eight superintendents in 12 years. Alioto said he thought that an amicable school board could attract a good candidate for "more than $60,000." The City Council would have to approve any salary increase.

"In my opinion, about $75,000 could get some real candidates, some real executives," Guines said. "Take somebody who's a superintendent somewhere else -- he must be making close to $50,000 already. And then there's the cost of relocating to the District and the cost of living. He must really want to come here, because he's going to be losing money."

Guines pointed out that in the District, school board members make more than $20,000 from their city posts and can hold outside jobs. "They get paid better than the superintendent," he said.

Simmons noted that in addition to their higher salaries, school superintendents in other cities often frequently receive fringe benefits, such as the use of a house and car, or a life insurance policy. No such benefits are being considered during the city's current search for a permanent successor to Vincent E. Reed.

On the other hand, there is the case of the D.C. gambling board, whose members, for their $15,000 annual paychecks, will at first meet weekly but then slow the pace to a monthly meeting -- adding up to $1,250 per meeting, $1,500 for the board's chairman. The chairman is Brant Coopersmith, one of the authors of the initiative that set the board's compensation. Directors of Fortune 500 companies often are not paid as well.