YESTERDAY'S unprecedented session of the D.C. Board of Education was billed as a meeting to remove Wilma Harvey (Ward 1) as president. More was at stake, however. In deciding 6 to 5 to oust Ms. Harvey, the bitterly divided panel -- already lightly regarded by the public, and with good reason -- placed its own future on the line.

Stripped of its powers 2 1/2 years ago for having run the public school system into the ground, the current elected board was expected to prepare for a return to power in June 2000. The financial control board, when it engineered the November 1996 takeover, hoped the school board would use the interlude to learn how to function as a coherent governing body rather than as the collection of small-minded, squabbling micromanagers that had made life miserable for a succession of superintendents and school administrators.

Yesterday's acrimonious debate showed that little has changed. The current school board is as polarized and antagonistic as the worst of its predecessors. Infighting and dissension seem to be a way of life. In this instance, Ms. Harvey is under attack for her leadership qualities, management style and alleged improper use of board staff. In voting her out, the six-member majority declared it had lost confidence in her as a leader. To which Ms. Harvey responded: "Colleagues, unfortunately, I will see you in court."

If there was any saving grace to yesterday's spectacle it was that at least schoolchildren weren't on hand to witness it. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who inherits the elected board next year, was seated at the rear of the chamber during part of the proceedings. Here's hoping she wasn't scared off by what she saw. No superintendent charged with reforming a badly neglected school system deserves to be saddled with the kind of fractious board on display yesterday. Parents and students deserve better too.

The financial control board, which is still responsible for the public schools, must weigh the elected school board's behavior and decide whether the panel serves the best interest of public education in the District. It is a question for the public as well.