Alexandria School Superintendent Paul W. Masem, already coping daily with the competing educational needs of the affluent and the needy in the city of 108,000, now finds himself a political target as well.

With a City Council race five months away, a small but vocal group of parents and political hopefuls have complained that Masem is unresponsive to many parents and that by emphasizing the needs of poor black and foreign-born students, he is driving white middle-class students from the city's schools, where they are already a minority.

Two council members, both seeking reelection, have called for an independent management survey of the schools. A black member of the School Board, himself a candidate for the council, has joined in their request. The City Council will hold a hearing on the proposal Jan. 28.

"The mistake Paul Masem is making is that he is concentrating on special programs to improve minority achievement," said Carol LaSasso, one of several parents to remove their children from George Mason Elementary School last spring because of what they said were discipline and curriculum problems.

"He is ignoring the needs of middle-class children and doing little to encourage middle-class parents to stay in the public schools."

As Masem, 51, has come under fire recently, many parents, teachers and city officials have come to his defense.

His supporters point out that he was hired four years ago specifically to tackle minority achievement and that a failure to do so now could result in higher social costs to the city later.

Masem's situation reflects the educational and political obstacles that have led to the resignation or removal of a score of urban school superintendents across the country during the past year. Most recently, the Baltimore school board refused to renew the contract of its superintendent.

Earlier this month Harry Pitt announced he will retire in June from his four-year stewardship of the Montgomery County school system.

"On the one hand you have a School Board and part of the community that makes it a priority to address minority achievement," Masem said, describing the balancing act he faces as Alexandria's school chief.

"On the flip side you have about a third of your student body that would be described as a white middle class, and a certain part of that group sees a focus on minority achievement as a drain on resources," he said.

The superintendent, hired after heading school systems in Little Rock, Ark., and Ames, Iowa, is responsible for one of the Washington area's smallest and most ethnically diverse school systems.

Two-thirds of Alexandria's 9,592 students are minorities, with 12 percent of the students enrolled in English as a second language, one third coming from single-parent homes and 38 percent receiving subsidized lunches.

But the system also boasts that 87 percent of high school seniors say they want to go on to some form of higher education, that the city's one high school, T.C. Williams, sends scores of students each year to the nation's most selective colleges, that white students at all grade levels scored better on standardized tests last year than their counterparts in Fairfax County's much-touted system.

Masem acknowledges that his heart, his professional experience, his educational principles and priorities lie with minority achievement, an area he says he became committed to after a stint teaching in a nearly all-black Chicago area school, where a black educator became his mentor.

"I see minority achievement as a much, much more pressing need," Masem said.

Toward that need, he has started programs that identify individual students for specific instruction.

Masem also pushed hard to add several new social workers, psychologists and other support staff this year to help children whose family problems and other social disadvantages distract them from school work.

"You and I have a toothache, we go to a dentist. We have kids walking around school who always have a toothache" because they do not have adequate care or resources at home, Masem said. "I have a hard time getting what I call my electorate to identify with that kind of problem."

But several parents who say they support Masem's work with minority students say his programs remain undefined and have done little to close the gap between the test scores of white and minority students. Some parents also accuse him of weakening the school system by neglecting the needs of middle-class students, who they say would benefit from more special academic programs devoted to them.

Mayor and Rep.-Elect James P. Moran Jr. said he strongly supports minority achievement but maintains that Masem and the School Board also must remain accountable to the system's middle class.

If the administration "tilts too much {toward minority achievement} then the parents of the more advantaged children are going to take their children out of the school system," Moran said. "If that happens, you're going to lose the leadership of that community, and ultimately the financial leadership."

Masem's problems in Alexandria parallel those he had in Little Rock. There, the school board refused to renew his contract after critics said his efforts to desegregate the city school staff and raise the achievements of black students had encouraged white flight.

Lonnie C. Rich, a Democratic candidate for the council and the father of George Mason students, assailed Masem for watering down parents' role in local schools by appointing administrative "outsiders" unsympathetic to local concerns.

Rich, who says he would fire Masem "if it were solely my decision," also is one of many parents and city officials who said the superintendent is aloof, even arrogant. School Board member Gene C. Lange described Masem's greatest flaw as an inability to "communicate to the public a feeling of understanding or care for what the parents want."

Several members of the city's black community said they once had midgivings about Masem's sincerity in tackling minority achievement, buit many now count themselves among Masem's supporters.

Ferdinand T. Day, one of three members of a School Board-appointed Minority Task Force who once left the committee for several months over differences with Masem, said he thinks Masem is the target of white parents with racial motivations.

"It's the affluent people of the city who have some problem because black children happen to be going to school in their affluent area has upset the City Council" and targeted Masem, Day said.

Maceo Webster, a black parent of a George Mason third grader, echoed his concerns.

"If there are more than four black faces in a classroom, their automatically assume its for low achievers," Webster said.

John Komoroske, a white parent who said his third grader is receiving a good education at George Mason, said economics, not race, is causing tension at the school, where about a quarter of the 375 students are bused from a downtown public housing project. It is difficult for "kids from the projects, when you have a single parent or drug problems, to compete with people in the middle class who are very active" in the school and neighborhood politics, he said.

Webster said she feared such divisions will surface during the upcoming City Council campaign and praised Masem, saying. "he has the best interest of all the children in Alexandria. He refuses to play favorites."

Student population: (as of Oct. 31) 9,592

Ethnic breakdownWhite: 33.8 percent Black: 46.5 percentHispanic: 13.4 percentAsian: 6.1 percentAmerican Indian, other: 0.2 percent

Students enrolled in English as a second language: 1,113 (12 percent)

Students enrolled in special education programs: 1,494 (16 percent)

Students receiving subsidized lunches: 3,618 (38 percent)

Standardized test scores4th grade: 60th percentile8th grade: 61st percentile11th grade: 53rd percentile

Standardized test scores by ethnic group

4th gradeWhite: 82nd percentileBlack: 43rd percentileHispanic: 53rd percentileAsian: 65th percentile

8th gradeWhite: 83rd percentileBlack: 39th percentileHispanic: 46th percentileAsian: 77th percentile

11th gradeWhite: 79th percentileBlack: 36th percentileHispanic: 30th percentileAsian: 44th percentile

Literacy passport test (6th graders):Reading test: 77 percent of the students tested passed Math test: 79 percent of the students tested passedWriting test: 73 percent of the students tested passed

Teacher salariesAverage salary (for 1989-90): $40,406 Starting salary (highest in region): $26,300

Annual cost per pupil (for 1989-90): $7,551

SOURCE: Alexandria Public Schools