The District's failed effort to recruit former New York City schools chief Rudolph F. Crew erupted into a public feud yesterday as Mayor Anthony A. Williams accused Crew of toying with the city to negotiate a more lucrative deal elsewhere. Crew responded by labeling the mayor's attack "classless" and "sad."

"I feel really just bad for the mayor and bad for his administration that there would be such a classless comment," said Crew, who last week accepted the top schools job in Miami-Dade County. "There are a number of very serious impediments to anybody coming to that city and running that school system. He knows it, and other people know it. Better he should focus on fixing it . . . than to do this kind of below-the-belt conversation."

The angry exchange began yesterday morning when Williams (D) appeared on a WTOP radio show. The host, Mike Moss, suggested that Crew rejected the D.C. job because of a "power struggle between you and the school board" over control of the public school system.

Williams adopted a sarcastic tone -- "Mmm-hmmm. Yeah, right," he said -- then agreed with Moss's suggestion that Crew "was using D.C. for leverage to get more money in Miami."

The mayor said, "I think that he basically had already committed to Miami and . . . it was like, you know, one of these [retail] chains making a location decision." Referring to a job offer Crew fielded from St. Louis, Williams said: "He had St. Louis. Left a trail of wreckage. St. Louis [was] all upset, felt they were told one thing and actually got another. Now you got Washington being [told] one thing and another thing happens."

Officials in St. Louis did not return a telephone call.

Williams went on to defend his decision to travel to Rome, where he attended a conference on opening youth centers in war-ravaged cities, while Crew was visiting the District on May 15 and 16. Some D.C. Council members have blamed the mayor's absence for Crew's decision to take the Miami job. Crew has said that he would have liked more time with Williams, who Crew said did not respond to his request for a telephone call. Williams has said he tried to call Crew but could not get through.

"I thought the way [Crew] handled it -- in terms of who made phone calls and who didn't make phone calls -- was not very becoming, to be honest with you and direct," Williams said. "Was he a person of high caliber? Absolutely. Was our governance situation here a factor in his decision? Absolutely. But would one phone call have made a difference? I don't believe so."

Williams's comments produced a burst of outrage -- from Crew, who responded in a telephone interview, and from city officials, who said they fear the mayor's behavior is crippling the search for a superintendent to lead the troubled school district.

As the search began, Williams continued his push to take over the school district and limit the Board of Education's powers. Three candidates for superintendent, including Crew, have said that uncertainty over school system oversight has made a difficult job seem even less appealing.

This month, Williams met with Crew and publicly identified him as his top choice. He also confirmed that city officials were trying to assemble a compensation package of as much as $600,000 -- including base salary, bonuses, pension and other perks -- that would be offered to Crew but not necessarily to less-sought-after candidates.

Williams then jetted to Rome rather than woo Crew. The mayor's remarks yesterday added a final touch of indignity to the process, said two city officials.

"I think it hurts immeasurably, and I pray that we can overcome it," said Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, adding that she expects a "collaborative" of city and school officials to recommend a superintendent to the school board by the end of next week.

Cafritz said she suspects that Williams criticized Crew because "it's very important to the mayor that citizens not blame him for what happened. I am not saying the mayor is to blame, but I am saying it's so important to him that citizens not blame him, that there has to be a scapegoat somewhere."

Crew and Cafritz, who negotiated with Crew, denied the substance of the mayor's remarks, saying Crew never tried to parlay interest from multiple jurisdictions into a larger compensation package. Crew said he made it clear to District officials that he was leaning toward Miami, where he will be paid $295,000 plus as much as $50,000 in bonuses in his first year.

"What he's really done is characterize himself," Crew said of Williams. "That's a very poor showing of a person in a leadership role."

When asked about Crew's comments last night, the mayor said: "I don't want to get into an argument with Rudy Crew. We've already had enough."