A few weeks ago, when his job was on the line, Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins said racism seemed to be at the root of his trouble with the D.C. school board. The remark has become a hot topic in the school system -- especially because Jenkins has refused to explain what he meant.

His accusation startled the board's 11 members, eight of whom are black. Board members denied that race had a role in their evaluation of Jenkins, and said that to suggest as much was irresponsible.

Board members were angered that Jenkins used racism as a defense when under fire, especially amid the tense climate surrounding the drug and perjury trial of Mayor Marion Barry. Yet in the aftermath of the board's debate, Jenkins said he saw "no benefit" to explaining his comments.

All of this has some parents and school officials wondering: Was he serious? Or was he faking it, simply to incite public support for his cause?

Board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), who appears to be one of Jenkins's few allies on the board, has supported the accusation. Lockridge told reporters before the board's vote on Jenkins's fate that some board members wanted Jenkins ousted because "he's the wrong color."

Lockridge also accused the D.C. Committee on Public Education, a task force of 64 civic leaders, and Parents United, a schools advocacy group, of conspiring to dump Jenkins because he is black. He even suggested that some of the school board's black members were "fronting for white folk."

Board member Eugene Kinlow (At Large), who is black, has been infuriated with both Jenkins's and Lockridge's conduct. He said crying racism is a smokescreen to distract city residents from how poorly D.C. schools are educating their students, more than 90 percent of whom are black.

"That's the issue," Kinlow said. "Race is not the issue."

Kinlow and other board members argue that it is impossible for race to have much affect on any school decisions because, along with the board, nearly all of the system's leaders -- principals, PTA presidents, union officials -- are black.

Most board members also say they do not believe that either the D.C. Committee of Public Education or Parents United has racist motives. Two of the committee's top leaders, Carmen T. Turner, the general manager of Metro, and Togo D. West, a prominent local lawyer, are black. So are the co-directors of Parents United, Delabian Rice-Thurston and Glenda Partee.

Exactly what Jenkins and Lockridge meant remains a mystery, but it appears their comments have left a trail of resentment among the groups and leaders that D.C. students need most to work together. The Search Begins

Don't bet that the school board will wait until later this fall to begin looking for a successor to Jenkins, whose contract expires in June, and at this point won't be renewed. The search, it seems, is underway.

Although board members have said they won't announce a formal search until October, there are already hints and rumors of the candidates some board members would like to see become the city's next school superintendent.

Three reasons why secret discussions are beginning: First, there are elections in November, and the board would prefer not to have any new member figuring in the search. Second, the longer the board waits, the more chance Jenkins has to rally his troops to fight for another term -- which it seems he wants. Third, the District is competing against several other large urban school systems -- Atlanta, Boston, St. Louis -- for qualified superintendents.

Already, names are surfacing from the rumor mill that some board members consider worth checking:

Gene Carter, superintendent of Norfolk's public schools; Matthew Prophet, superintendent of Portland, Ore., public schools; and Jerome Harris, who was just dismissed as superintendent of Atlanta's public schools.

There is little chance, board members say, that a D.C. school system insider will be chosen. But a few local officials also are apparently being whispered among board members: Dwight Cropp, a former aide to Mayor Barry and husband of departing school board member Linda Cropp (Ward 4); and -- a name to watch closely -- Eugene Kinlow, the at-large board member and Jenkins's critic who is resigning his seat this fall. Furloughs?

As it has for the last few years, the possibility of closing classrooms for several days and not paying teachers because of money shortages is looming again in the D.C. school system.

Last week, Mayor Marion Barry ordered the school board to cut $10 million from its current budget. The board filed suit to block the move, and a court hearing has been scheduled for next week.

Board members say that if they lose the case, there would not be enough time left in the fiscal year (it ends Sept. 30) to make $10 million in program cuts or equipment purchases. "Furloughs would be our only recourse," said school board President Nate Bush (Ward 7).