Clifford B. Janey officially became the District's schools superintendent last night, starting a new chapter in the city's long and painful efforts to improve a school system plagued by low student achievement and administrative dysfunction.

The D.C. Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a three-year contract for the 58-year-old Janey, who spent three decades as an educator in Boston and Rochester, N.Y. He was selected to head District schools last month after a tumultuous process in which two candidates withdrew from consideration.

With little discussion, the school board approved the contract, which provides Janey with an annual salary of $250,000 and performance incentives of as much as 20 percent of his base pay. According to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, the average urban superintendent's salary is $188,988.

"While there have been well publicized bumps in the road" in the selection process, "the destination has been worth it,'' said school board member Tommy Wells (District 3).

Board members briefly questioned R. Craig Wood, a Charlottesville lawyer who helped the school board negotiate the contract. Wood said that he has helped negotiate more than 100 such contracts for school systems and that the salary offered to Janey for the task of reforming a low-performing system "is a fair amount, if there is such a thing, for this job."

Audience members applauded quietly after the contract was approved, and board members stood to shake hands with and congratulate Janey, who did not speak publicly.

Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz quipped that she saw Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice "take a huge sigh of relief."

Janey is the fifth superintendent in a decade at the 65,000-student system, in which many functions remain in disarray. There is no coordinated curriculum for the city's 165 schools, and standardized test scores are among the lowest in the country. Only about 12 percent of 11th-grade students, for example, can read proficiently.

Teachers still complain about missing paychecks, and a five-year-old project to install a new computer system for business functions has failed after wasting millions of dollars.

In an interview yesterday, Janey said that his eyes are open to the school system's problems and that he knows many of them will take time to fix. "I'm not delusional and have no intention of becoming delusional," he said, adding that he was not deterred by the seriousness of the issues facing the city's schools.

He has already begun a crash course in the system's setbacks and successes and has visited a number of schools.

Janey said that unlike some new superintendents, who start to create a master plan for school reform, he will move quickly on what he called "low-hanging fruit," taking immediate action in areas where it is warranted.

"It's fool's play to invent a new plan without establishing the preconditions for success," he said.

For example, Janey said that by November, he intends to present to the school board a plan to institute systemwide learning standards and assessments of student performance. He also said he would involve staff members, teachers, parents and every other stakeholder in the system to help devise solutions.

Janey's contract allows bonuses of 2 to 4 percent for meeting or exceeding each of several goals, which the board has not yet determined.

"We have one month to do that . . . to get together with Dr. Janey and the community to set forth these goals," said Mirian Saez, the board's vice president.

Substitute teacher Robert Brannum and William Wilson of the Ward 7 Education Committee, a community group, whispered to each other in the front rows of the audience last night, questioning the optimism of board members. Both hope that Janey will make dramatic improvements, but they wondered whether individual agendas on the board and within the system would allow him to.

"He's going to have to make some folks mad to be successful," Brannum said in an interview.

But in his interview earlier yesterday, Janey had a message for people in the school system who think they can ignore his directives, expecting him to leave in relatively short order.

"Be in good shape if you think you can go 15 miles with me," he said.

Clifford B. Janey visited some D.C. schools on opening day, before he officially became superintendent. Yesterday, he said he will take immediate action in areas where it is warranted.