As they debate what ails the District's public schools, the leading candidates for mayor draw portraits of classrooms in crisis, with too many students dropping out, a curriculum that lacks rigor, teachers who are underpaid, and a system burdened by an inept, money-gobbling bureaucracy.

The mayoral campaign is full of candidate pledges to overhaul the troubled school system, but many parents and educators are skeptical, citing the city's empty wallet and its endless feuds with the independent-minded school board.

"The next mayor just can't keep talking about all the problems we have," said Irasema Salcido, who manages a dropout-prevention program at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest Washington. "Whoever wins has to get their hands dirty, get inside the schools, and help make changes."

It won't be easy. Though there is great community interest in aiding the city's 81,300 students, and there is a widely applauded agenda for educational changes, the chief obstacle to progress appears to be, as usual, money.

The next mayor will have a choice: raise taxes and reduce other city agency budgets to increase the $500 million school budget or force school leaders to pay their own tab for new projects by making deep cuts in their bureaucracy. Either route would guarantee a long political battle, the last thing, parent leaders say, city youths need.

"People are tired of hearing all the talk about education. They want action," said William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union. "But the next mayor's hands may be tied," because the city has no money. Mayoral candidates insist that won't be the case. No one mentions a tax increase, but the major candidates all are proposing new projects for the school system and vowing to hold school leaders responsible for their work.

The candidates' agendas are similar: they want schools open from dawn to dusk, all year. They want more classes for 3- and 4-year-olds. They want the curriculum to shed more light on the historical contributions of black Americans and African culture. And they all want to curb the dropout rate.

Nevertheless, there are subtle differences in what candidates emphasize. D.C. Council member John Ray (D-At Large), who has been endorsed by five school board members and the teachers union, has said he can find $200 million in wasteful city government spending that could be used to help schools, especially to open more early childhood centers.

Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) and Republican candidate Maurice T. Turner Jr. are promising to adopt the academic proposals from a panel of civic leaders that has asked for longer school days, year-round classes and tougher hiring and graduation standards.

Democrat Sharon Pratt Dixon, a lawyer, has said she will bring a more academic focus to the city's summer jobs program for youths, and she wants all companies that do business in the city to contribute to schools. She also has said she would audit the school system regularly.

Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D), while advocating many of the same goals as his opponents, is questioning school officials' independence from mayoral and council scrutiny. Saying the school system has "no accountability," Clarke has suggested changing the city's charter to give the mayor and council line-item authority over the school budget. He also has said school officials should move from their high-priced downtown offices.

Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) also criticizes the system, saying that its administration is a "graveyard" for incompetent workers, and that school board members are too mired in politics. Jarvis said she intends to shift some social service and Recreation Department money to schools and is asking school officials to improve math and science instruction.

Though it has not been a top issue in the campaign, the next mayor also will be faced with the problems of the University of the District of Columbia. The university has not replaced its ousted president and is riddled with faculty strife and budget worries. There are also concerns on the D.C. Council that the university board, which the mayor appoints, meddles too much in campus administration.

"The board has to be restructured in some way," said council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3). "Otherwise, the university is going to continue to exist in the anarchy it's in at this point."

Regarding the city's 175 public schools, whoever wins the mayor's race will in many ways be restricted to urging the school board to do what it thinks is best.

The mayor cannot dictate how schools spend money or guide how schools work. That's the board's job -- exclusively -- and it has been a source of dispute with Mayor Marion Barry for years. Relations between the mayor's office and the board are poor, and Barry has been criticized by many parent leaders. The next mayor will no doubt be asked to repair those wounds, but at the same time be a watchdog of school officials' performance.

That's one role that Barry, who regularly complains about not being able to control what school officials do, has seemed to relish.

"It's depressing to think of what the schools are not doing," Barry said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. "And it doesn't have anything to do with money. It has to do with leadership."

Still, parent leaders who share Barry's concern say they hope the next mayor treats schools much differently than he did. Barry has visited classes often and has awarded a half-million dollars in scholarships to top high school students each year, but many parents say he has not crusaded for school improvements or paid much attention to school system waste.

"The next mayor has to be very hands-on and has to hold the board accountable," said Addie Hargrove-Butler, president of the PTA at Petworth Elementary in Northwest Washington.