For Montgomery County School Superintendent Wilmer S. Cody, even most of the last day on the job was spent wrestling with improving minority student achievement, the perplexing problem that had plagued his four-year tenure.

Aside from cleaning out his desk and saying goodbye to his staff, Cody labored over the finishing touches on a long memo to the school staff explaining his plan to raise minority test scores, one of the main goals the school board set when it hired Cody in 1983.

Cody left the superintendent's job June 30 and announced that, although he could not release many details, he will spend the next year working on a "national education and research project." His successor is Harry Pitt, who was deputy superintendent.

At an informal, farewell news conference on his last day, the usually reserved, formal Cody smiled and appeared relaxed as he sought to explain his efforts on the memo that day. "I felt I had a personal obligation to finish this before I left," he said.

Reflecting on his four years as superintendent of the nation's 17th largest school system, Cody said, "I'm leaving with no regrets at all, and I'm glad I came."

Cody had been regarded by many school officials and county residents as a low-key, effective administrator who won praise for revamping the curriculum, securing funds for a dozen new schools and presiding over steadily rising student achievement scores.

But his inability to deal more effectively with lagging test scores among minority students was a constant irritant to the 50-year-old Alabama native, who was credited with establishing successful desegregation programs in Birmingham before coming to Montgomery County.

The issue finally led to a loss of confidence among school board members, and Cody announced early this year that he was leaving his post when it appeared evident that the board was not going to renew his contract.

Board member Blair Ewing, one of Cody's more vocal critics, said Cody's main limitation as superintendent was that "he gave less direction to the school system than the school system needed or wanted."

Cody's final minority education plan has been presented to the board and will be considered later this summer. In a speech Tuesday, Pitt indicated that he endorses Cody's concept of holding individual schools accountable for improving minority test scores. But he also made clear that an individual school's success in the program will be measured in terms of how well the minority students there perform rather than on how close the students come to meeting a countywide goal for minority student achievement.

Cody's proposal envisions holding individual school principals accountable for lack of improvement in test scores and would closely monitor the scores of individual minority students from year to year.

Under the plan, schools that improved minority performance would be rewarded with certificates of achievement and monetary awards. Schools that did not show improvement would have to reexamine their programs and teaching practices.

If the school did not show improvement within two years, a team of central office staff members would be called in to determine and correct the problem. If minority achievement still did not improve, school system officials would reassign some school staff, including the principal.

Ewing said Cody's most recent revision of the plan still is missing "a specific set of strategies" to improve minority achievement and "a central direction of what is to be done."

Cody would not comment on the criticism some school board members have had of his plan. "Controversy is part and parcel of the job," he said. "I have learned to expect that . . . I don't think I would have done anything differently."

James Robinson, the chairman of a group of parents who monitor minority issues in the 95,000-student school system, said, "It's very difficult to know how much of {Cody's plan} will be used, given the new cast of people."

Robinson said he hopes Pitt will extract the good things from Cody's plan and "integrate them quickly into the kind of thrust he would be willing to sit on top of and manage and direct . . . . "

At the news conference, Cody said most school staff members and principals have accepted the main part of his plan, the concept of holding individual schools accountable for minority improvement.

"I think the direction is cast," Cody said. "There will be debate {about the minority plan}, but that's okay. What's not an issue is whether individual schools will be held accountable."

About his relationship with the school board, he said, "The disagreements with them were about specific programs and issues. They were never generalized."

During his tenure, Cody said, the school system made strides in hiring more minority teachers, planning for the growing student population in the upper county and strengthening the magnet programs that were created as a desegregation tool for schools in the southern end of the county with high minority enrollments.

He said he is "leaving the school system in some areas a little better than when I came."

Among the main challenges facing the system are mending fences with the county council and county executive after this year's bitter debate over the school budget, and ensuring that the school system can continue to hire qualified teachers when the pool of college graduates in education is at an all-time low, Cody said.

"Our enrollment is growing and that increases the cost of education and that makes tax increases necessary," he said. "If that's the case, it will be tough."

Later, in a uncharacteristically lighthearted moment, Cody said he had cleaned out his desk but had left a bottle of aspirin behind for Pitt.

"How long will the bottle last?" asked a reporter. "Oh, Harry doesn't get headaches, he gives them," Cody replied, smiling. He added, "I mean that as a compliment."