There's nothing like the prospect of a hanging to bring out this city's gawkers and ghouls. And a bumper crop of both were on hand this week at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library as the D.C. financial control board squared off with school Superintendent Franklin Smith, and his number one cheerleader, School Board President Karen Shook. When the hearing finally ended, the ghouls may have been disappointed: no blood or bodies were on the floor. Smith and Shook left the library in one piece, but hardly unscathed. Their reputations as good stewards of the school system's half-billion-dollar enterprise were in tatters.

After hearing the testimony of newly imposed chief financial officer Abdusalam Omer, the kindest thing to be said of the D.C. school system's approach to management and administration is that it's something straight out of the Algonquin J. Calhoun School of Law and Business -- all huffing and puffing, frowning and fussing, kee-keeing and caw-cawing, picking up paychecks while moaning the "Mo' Money Blues" -- and when challenged with mismanagement, having the ability to issue soulful declarations of unbridled devotion to (drum-roll, please) "The Chiill-dreennn!"

Omer's descent on the schools came after the city's chief financial officer, Anthony Williams, concluded that nothing remotely comprehensible would ever come out of the school system's budget, financial and personnel offices without having someone in place who possesses at least a passing familiarity with numbers and a genuine respect for rules. Since Aug. 5, Omer has been Anthony Williams's green-eye-shades agent on the scene. And apparently without digging very hard, Omer has unearthed a smelly mess.

Smith is not enthralled to have Omer on his turf. In fact, Smith and his central office team seemed especially out of sorts during Omer's testimony. If looks could kill, Omer's home-going ceremony might be underway 'round about now.

When he reached the witness table, Smith complained that he needed a financial helpmate, not a chief financial officer "finding as much garbage as he can find." To hear Omer tell it, though, all he had to do was follow the scent.

Omer depicted a central office system that operates more like a clan, commune or a charmed circle than a business with good cash management and sound business practices. After years of counts and recounts, student enrollment numbers are still about as reliable as a politician's promise. It's a system where the last thing needed to support a point of view is solid budget and financial information; rank, connections and fast footwork will do just fine, thank you very much.

Standards? C'mon. Why let the law and silly old regulations come between friends. Planning? A moment's thought is a moment wasted. Besides, if it sounds good and everybody around the table likes it, just do it!

Chased out of a principalship? Banned from the classroom? Tired of teaching? Join the central office staff and become a personnel specialist, a finance guru, run the special education program, become an assistant to the acting assistant deputy superintendent in charge of something or other. Come on downtown and pay back your enemies or at least make 'em squirm. After all, this is the D.C. school system and it's "our thang." Well, not anymore.

Omer told the control board that the school system is in a state of crisis and on the verge of collapse as a result of long-term neglect of systemic problems. Enter Karen Shook, eight-year school board veteran and self-described "vigilant chair of the {board's} finance committee," where she served for four years.

Shook, who never passes up the chance to decry budget cuts and plead for more money, admitted during the hearing that the school system is loaded with "chronic deficiencies related to the business side of the school system of which none of us can be proud." You bet they can't.

Incredibly, while allowing in the same breath that the bureaucracy had a life of its own and pleading that "we need help in getting the numbers right," Shook lamented not having more money to pour into the administrative morass over which she presides. Every good wish, Madam President.

Shook fancies Smith to be a "visionary" -- her word -- and he's apparently tied his career to her coattails. So be it. Let them have their mutual admiration society. But for the sake of 80,000 kids, let's get some heavyweight procurement, personnel, financial and facility managers into that system with enough clout to get rid of the obstructionists and deadwood -- root, branch and stem.

Why so hard on the schools?

Maybe it's because I believe that imposing a badly managed, poorly administered educational system on this city's children only helps to compel the poor performance we so loudly deplore. Maybe it's because I believe that children east of the river are as capable of learning as privileged youngsters west of the park and that when school officials squander what little money we have, they are robbing kids who can least afford the loss.

Maybe it's because each day the superintendent and school board waste time and money on trivialities, we lose kids who can be saved. Maybe it's because I think -- no, I know -- that the so-called business side can't be divorced from the instructional side of the school system; that the effects of poor central office management of scarce resources ultimately will reach the classroom, cutting the legs out from under some darn good teachers and parents who are trying to do the right thing by their kids. Maybe I'm so hard on the folks downtown because I, along with thousands of other residents, believe children of this city deserve more than they are getting from this board and the central office hierarchy.

So, if the school board or council won't do its job, the financial control board ought to intervene and restructure and redirect the superintendent's operations. If necessary, leave Smith in place; but by all means, clean up that act.

And finally, whatever else control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer and his colleagues decide, they should -- no, make that must -- ensure that school spending, contracts and hiring are kept a safe distance from One Judiciary Square. Cut city hall in on that half a billion dollars, and surely we all will deserve to hang. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.