IT IS CLEAR that the D.C. Board of Education is deeply dissatisfied with the performance of School Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins and that its members have no plans to extend his tenure beyond the third and final year of his contract. The immediate questions involving Mr. Jenkins seem to be whether the board will decide that he should serve out the rest of his term, and whether the separation will be amicable or tortuous. The deeper question facing the school system involves the board's own capacity to conduct an effective search for a qualified replacement.

In the process that resulted in the selection of Mr. Jenkins in 1988, it was apparent that many on the board were displeased with the applicants under consideration. It was said that neither Mr. Jenkins nor another high-ranking insider had shown a capacity to boldly change the direction of the school system. A general lack of excitement about the first pool of applicants led the board to readvertise and seek new candidates. In the end, the board was clearly divided, and the initial closed door votes actually ran against Mr. Jenkins.

The selection of a superintendent is quite simply the most important task of the school board. In the coming months, the board must conduct a rigorous search that produces a candidate who has, if not the spirited backing of the full board, then at the least the blessing of a clear majority of its members. That is what this school system needs and what its 81,300 students deserve. This is particularly important, given the fact that board members have indicated that they do not believe that any of Mr. Jenkins's deputies is right for the job.

The school system has lost important ground in recent months, especially in regard to what may have been a deliberate effort of some school administrators to conceal an accurate count of students. Many important and thus far elusive goals remain. Test scores must improve. The dropout rate must be reduced. A system of secondary schools that produce too many students who are far below grade average must be strengthened. The board must be willing to step back and greatly trim its own reach into the day-to-day administration of the schools.

The board faces some problems in this effort, not least the relatively low salary that it is able to offer. But there are strengths which can and must be exploited. Surely, the position of school superintendent in the nation's capital, a highly visible post, is one that can attract a number of eager and enterprising candidates. Mr. Jenkins has had his turn at the helm. Now the matter is squarely in the board's hands.