THE CONTINUING warfare between the city's superintendent of schools and its elected school board is doing nothing good for the city's children. The friction here began early. The superintendent, Andrew Jenkins, wanted the post in 1981, but the school board picked Floretta McKenzie. For eight years, he toiled in her shadow, waiting for another chance. It came in 1988, but it was painfully clear that the school board really didn't want him. Board members said he had not shown enough drive and vision. Still, he stayed in the running. Others would have been sobered by the rancorous one-vote majority that eventually elevated him, but an elated Andrew Jenkins apparently felt he had achieved the first half of a dream.
The board immediately said that Mr. Jenkins had no time to waste. He surely acted as if he didn't, launching more projects than anyone in memory -- more than he could handle at once. The board watched Mr. Jenkins flounder and said he was leaving too many projects unfinished. And now there are fresh reminders of the school system's shortcomings. Just this week, the annual test scores showed that only one group of students, the 11th-graders, had improved.
In recent weeks, it had become clear that the board was not going to renew Mr. Jenkins's contract but that it also wasn't prepared to fire him. It offered to buy out his contract. The normally mild superintendent summoned unusual strength. The other half of his dream -- completing his three-year term -- was in jeopardy. Mr. Jenkins, inspired by angry supporters, refused the buyout, and the school board caved in, voting to keep him on for the last year of his contract.
In 1988 the school board failed in its most important task -- selecting a superintendent who at the least had the strong support of a clear majority of its members. It failed to help Mr. Jenkins select a manageable list of priorities. When it began to talk about removing him, it had no one ready to replace him. Nor should the board have offered an excessive $250,000 buyout at a time when the school system is desperately short of funds. The board's whole performance has been lamentable. Fortunately, voters have an early opportunity to pass their own judgment. Five school board seats are up this year, and four other board members face recall efforts.
Mr. Jenkins, for his part, was again elated on Thursday, but this has been a sad chapter in the history of the school system. "All I ever wanted was to just complete my contract and serve the city's children," he said. It's too bad that so much of his energy is being consumed by the former.