A ROTTEN TRADITION is developing in this town. It is the apolitical stance taken by most citizens every two years when five or six of the 11 school board seats are up for election. There was a time when the school board race, as the only local election in town, was a major event. That was in 1967, and the absence of a mayoral race or a city council election made the school board contest a stellar attraction for politicians and voters. At first there was some tightness in the reaction that this city of federal workers had to an election; government workers were accustomed to being prohibited from participation in election campaign activity by the Hatch Act. That inflexibility seems to have worn off now; most people know that the school board race is not affected by the Hatch Act, and District residents have become accustomed to voting. But, as more home rule came to the District, making District citizens eligible to participate in more elections, the school board race sank to the bottom of the barrel in city politics. It is a race known best for the drowsiness it inspires.

This is a truly unfortunate turn. Most often the school board gets attention only after it has been elected and even then only for its madcap behavior or its wild-eyed policies. This would stop in a moment, of course, if more responsible people showed an interest in the schools. But they don't. Politically aware parents who have children in the public schools are an exception in most parts of this city; many have given up on the public schools. Witness the move to suburban schools by both black and white middle class and the increase in enrollment in the city's parochial and private schools.

The result of this public indifference to the school board election can be seen in the product, alas -- the breathtakingly incompetent board itself and the mish-mash of policy that has been visited on the public schools in recent years on such basic issues as, for example, how to teach reading. It can be seen in the series of superintendents (eight in 12 years) who came and went, leaving the school system on automatic pilot or no pilot. And then there was the last superintendent, Vincent Reed, who said he couldn't tolerate the pettiness of the school board any longer after having had to take it for years. p

All this traces back to the public's attitude toward the school board election. Negligence has produced preposterous choices -- for example, an unknown, Frank Shaffer-Corona, versus a far-out ideologue with little public record, both running for an at-large school board seat. The winner in that race was Mr. Shaffer-Corona, and he has insulted this city and its children with his antics since that election. His frequent press releases, reporting his efforts to solve the Iranian crisis and his costly assaults on the school board telephone facilities in pursuit of his unusual foreign policy, read like a comic book.

On July 2, the city's Board of Elections and Ethics will begin handing out petitions for candidates interested in running for the school board. The deadline for filing the applications will be Aug. 26. That may seem a good way off, and, of course, a Nov. 3 election is far away. But July and August are non-school months, and a lassitude will slip over the city, the school board local politics and all else during the summer. Now is the time that parents groups the D.C. Parents for Better Public Education, the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers and the citizens associations should be lining up slates of candidates for the board. To offer to hold forums or to provide an auditorium and donuts is not enough anymore. There will have to be some hard decisions made and some strong words uttered and some new direct involvements in the election if this city is ever going to do something about its schools.