D.C. school board President Nate Bush, who also represents Ward 7 on the board, has been in office since most current 12th graders were in the first grade -- long enough to be considered an institution.

Bush's longevity in office coupled with the endorsement of his reelection bid by the D.C. Teachers Union makes any of the four unknowns challenging the three-term incumbent longshots. But the two men and two women vying to unseat Bush said current conditions in the city's public schools compelled them to challenge him, something no one has pulled off successfully in three elections.

At issue, they say, is the record of Bush, who has represented the ward, which includes far Northeast and parts of Southeast, since 1979.

Bush, 41, a lawyer from Benning Heights, points proudly to his accomplishments. During his tenure, he said, scores on national achievement tests have improved at the ward's elementary and junior high schools. He was also instrumental in getting a marine science program at Woodson Senior High School and a science program at Anne Beers Elementary School, he said.

But some of his opponents say he has become too comfortable in the job after almost 12 years.

Angela Carole, a secretary at Plummer Elementary School, said Bush "has done a splendid job," but three terms is long enough to hold any elective office.

Ada W. Carter, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Ward 7, noted that during Bush's watch, the school system's dropout rate increased and still too many student achievement test scores remain below national averages.

Terence Hairston, 24, a legal assistant, said the board needs younger, fresher ideas that cannot come from a three-term board member.

And Robert L. Matthews, 44, a teacher at Hine Junior High School, said members of the Capitol View Civic Association asked him to run because they viewed Bush as unresponsive when they asked him for help in getting a D.C. cable program restored.

"We have been good to Nate; we have sent him to the school board three times," Carter said. "But the situation hasn't changed."

Bush said his record over 11 years should answer voters' questions about his job performance. "I know there is an atmosphere out there against incumbency," Bush said. "But it is important to have some stability in the school system."

An underlying issue in the race concerns school Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, whose roots in Ward 7 have won him a lot of community support.

Bush had been a strong supporter of Jenkins. But this summer, he was at the helm when the board was prepared to buy out the last year of Jenkins's contract for close to $200,000. And recently, after reports about inflated enrollment figures at several District schools, Bush said that the board should begin keeping closer tabs on the superintendent.

Carole said the attempt to buy out Jenkins's contract persuaded her to run for the office. "The board was treating the superintendent like they were the Washington Redskins, offering him all of that money to quit," Carole said.

Carter said she thinks the board has caused some of Jenkins's problems. "The board wants to be the policy makers and the administrators," she said. "You can't do that."

Bush said he does not want the campaign to be a referendum on whether he supports Jenkins.

Bush, who succeeded Linda W. Cropp (Ward 4) as board president in January when she decided to run for an at-large D.C. Council seat, has presided during some stormy debates over enrollment figures, the closing of nine schools and several major gifts from cigarette companies. His term as president ends in January, but reelected, Bush said he would seek the top post again if reelected.

The other candidates offered different priorities for their first year.

Matthews said he would work to rid schools of discipline problems and to reduce the number of students per classroom.

Carole said she would work to make the mandatory school attendance age 18 instead of 16.

Hairston said he would reduce the number of administrators systemwide and use the savings to increase teacher salaries and offer free breakfasts to all students.

Carter said she would work to improve the vocational schools and increase parental involvement in all schools.