RAYMOND BROWN, an 18-year-old student at the city's top-performing secondary school, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, probably spoke for many of his classmates when he said that staff cuts by the D.C. Board of Education make him feel as though city leaders "don't care about us."

In fact, it's hard to make a case -- based on their performance -- that D.C. leaders consider the school system to be anything more than a political football to be kicked around just for the sport of it. How else to explain the amateurish and ungainly way in which they have gone about trying to fill the critical post of superintendent, a job that has been vacant since November? How else to explain a school system having to eliminate hundreds of teaching jobs to balance its budget, despite the fact that its funding has risen nearly 60 percent over six years while enrollment has fallen? How else to explain the impasse between Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council over the governance and operations of the public school system? "Everyone already thinks DCPS is the worst school system," Raymond Brown told Post reporter Justin Blum. "This is just making it even worse." Well said, Mr. Brown.

Students must find themselves confused about their city's priorities. How, they may ask, can the city's budget for next year launch education initiatives -- including the expansion of early childhood education, the expansion of after-school and out-of-school activities for children and the creation of five new transformation schools -- while the school board eliminates 285 teachers and 272 other school-based jobs? For Raymond Brown's Banneker, which has the highest test scores of any D.C. public high school, the cuts mean the loss of a part-time social studies teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a custodian and a clerk. Other schools are taking similar hits in staffing. Yet the new D.C. budget is padded with spending initiatives. Little wonder parents, teachers and students throughout the city are complaining.

But that is not what occupies the minds of city leaders. As the superintendent search drags on and much-needed teachers start cleaning out their desks, the mayor and council are gearing up to resume fighting for control of the schools. The mayor's veto yesterday of a bill retaining the current hybrid school board until 2006, when the board would become a fully elected body, opens the way for another legislative skirmish. The mayor's plan, which would have him appoint and supervise the superintendent, already has been defeated twice. Even some of his supporters are grumbling and wondering aloud whether it's worth another fight, given the mayor's penchant for being out of town when the going gets tough. Sentiment seems to be gathering among the council's more mature thinkers for coming up with a proposal that gives the system stability. Extension of the current hybrid system for four years or more, as some suggest, might settle the governance dispute and allow officials to come together, and, as Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said yesterday, "find the right superintendent."

It's worth thinking about. Raymond Brown, his classmates and parents deserve something better than this.