FOUR MONTHS ago, the D.C. Board of Education decided that school superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins could complete the final year of his contract. But the board also promised to use the ensuing months wisely by launching its search for Mr. Jenkins's replacement. The board has, at last, formed a search team that will oversee the selection process -- a welcome sign to everyone who has a sincere interest in improving public education in the District.

Board President Nate Bush says he and his colleagues have not shirked that responsibility, have privately laid the groundwork for the search and have several promising candidates in mind. This is as reassuring as it is curious. Why did any board member assume that these efforts should have proceeded so quietly? Mr. Bush replies that some board members were concerned about the impact on the recently conducted D.C. School Board elections and that the District has suffered too much turmoil over the trial of Mayor Marion Barry and other issues, and that he did not want to add to a climate of instability. We have different ideas: that Mr. Jenkins became an issue in the school board races in July the moment the board said it would replace him, and that a more timely and descriptive announcement of search efforts to date would have delivered the heartening signal that the school board was seriously at work in meeting its most important responsibility.

Mr. Bush says that at-large board members Eugene Kinlow, David Eaton and Karen Shook and he are on the search team, that outside firms have been contacted to determine which would best assist the search and that the board hopes to have a list of possible superintendents within three months. City residents need to know more, such as the specific qualities the board is looking for in its next superintendent.

The board must try to avoid past problems in this regard, such as the appearance of a lack of unity that resulted in few promising applicants in the last search, and a loss of valuable time during which those who might have been interested in the job either accepted positions elsewhere or decided to remain in their current posts.

It is also important that the board rally around a person who has the strong support of most, if not all, of its members. Voters in this city have already spoken on one related issue, rejecting board candidates whose main interest was extending Mr. Jenkins's tenure and electing those who understand the need to find a strong steward for the schools. The board should now conduct its search in a manner that openly informs and embraces a very interested community, reassured that it is on the right course.