THE DISTRICT'S Board of Education would prefer to select a talented outsider as its next school superintendent. We don't think it should categorically rule out a superintendent from within the system, but there is certainly much to be said for seeking out a highly talented and proven administrator from a comparable system elsewhere. This, however, is no easy task. It has been 17 years since a D.C. school board was determined to bring in a new chief administrator with no real ties to the school system (the last three were veterans who had come up through the city's schools) and the choice then -- Barbara Sizemore -- turned out to be a disaster. This time around there are new impediments to be overcome.

For instance: in an average school year, about six large city school districts are in the market for a new chief administrator, according to the Council of Great City Schools. But for the coming school year, some 18 cities around the nation are looking for new school system leadership, a figure that does not include the likelihood that Prince George's County will have to replace Superintendent John A. Murphy, who is seeking other employment. Seven of those cities -- Houston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Austin, Detroit and St. Louis -- offer salary and benefits packages worth as much as $30,000 to $50,000 more than what the District of Columbia is offering.

Fortunately, the D.C. school board seems to have learned from the divisive effort that installed Andrew E. Jenkins to the post in 1988. Board members say they are extending their search this time to include leaders in government, business and at the university level. They have also hired an executive search firm -- Isaacson, Miller, Gilvar and Boulware Inc. -- which has performed successful superintendent selections in the past and works to match the needs of a particular school system with candidates who show strengths in those areas. A 16-member community advisory board has already been selected, although its guidelines are still unclear.

The school system's needs are clear. Internal management in the D.C. schools is chaotic, as demonstrated by the time it took to achieve an accurate count of students. The board also has something of a major blueprint, in the form of the recommendations produced by the Committee of Public Education, that can serve as a guide. Perhaps the biggest plus this time around is what appears to be a new unity on the D.C. school board, which showed courage in ousting Mr. Jenkins. It must, therefore, be willing to continue that stance -- in picking a new superintendent who has the support of a clear majority of its members -- and beyond, in giving the person it chooses the kind of strong support that will be needed to marshal change.