THE CLANDESTINE SEARCH for a D.C. school superintendent is still underway, seven months after then-school chief Paul L. Vance abruptly threw in the towel. With the school year within weeks of ending, it's distinctly possible that teachers and students will leave classes next month not knowing who will lead their system in the fall. That would be unfortunate for both families and school personnel who have had to endure months of uncertainty concerning the direction of the beleaguered public education system. It is only somewhat encouraging to note that a search committee has forwarded the names of four school superintendent candidates to a panel of school and city officials, known to themselves as the "collaborative," that will, in turn, recommend one or more finalists to the school board. We say somewhat encouraging because it remains to be seen whether the "collaborative" -- an untried vehicle -- can produce a recommendation on anything.

The furtive nature of the decision-making process only compounds the problem. The identity of candidates on the search committee's whittled list is being treated as eyes-only, top secret information. That too is regrettable, because the panel and public would benefit from a public vetting of the names before a final decision is reached. At this stage, not much is known about the four candidates except, perhaps, their names. This much has been unearthed or is strongly suspected: One candidate is Rudolph F. "Rudy" Crews, former New York City school chancellor. Mr. Crews is also a top candidate for the Miami-Dade School system, where he has visited three times since mid-April, according to the Miami Herald. Mr. Crews recently turned down an offer to head the St. Louis school system, so in some respects he is a hot property. Carl A. Cohn, former superintendent of the Long Beach, Calif., Unified School District and currently involved with at-risk students in the school system, is also reportedly on the short list. Stephen C. Jones, whose contract as superintendent of the Syracuse school system was extended last year to 2005, has apparently turned up on the list of some search committee members, although it is not clear that Mr. Jones considers himself a candidate. The fourth is Candy Lee, who, until last November was president of United Airlines Loyalty Services, which includes a number of consumer-focused firms including mileage-plus programs.

It's difficult, from a distance, to assess the qualifications, experience or leadership qualities of the search committee's selections. City and school officials who must review these candidates bear a heavy burden to come up with the right person. That is especially the case since they have firmly resolved to pursue a covert selection process that borders on the occult.