Former mayor Marion Barry is indulging in an activity that he must still find stimulating, even at age 68: It's called political foreplay. Whether Barry will go through with his threat to challenge incumbent Sandy Allen for her Ward 8 D.C. Council seat is another matter. For Barry, the supreme moment is now, as the whole town speculates about whether he can make another comeback. For Barry, the act of officially declaring one's candidacy is secondary to that which precedes it. And, with Barry, there is no such thing as spending too much time on the buildup.

All of which would be great political theater in a city where local politics is about as exciting as looking at rocks. But there are more important matters of concern. First, there is Barry's health. Diabetes, high blood pressure and heart ailments are not to be taken lightly. Some of Barry's close friends believe his physical condition and the needs of his family should be his priorities. Yes, a Barry candidacy would be good for the media, which can never get enough of him. But another stint in public life might also be dangerous to his health. That's something for him to think about, even if he's having fun at the moment.

The second and more serious issue, at least in my book, is the reason Barry gave for considering another run for office: "He just doesn't like the way the government is being run," Allen said Barry told her. On that score, Barry has plenty of company. But it's not just the way the government operates. The direction of the city is also a matter of deep concern.

On paper, the District has never looked so good: seven consecutive balanced budgets, a two-notch Wall Street bond rating upgrade and $250 million in cash reserves. Thanks to federally mandated fiscal discipline, and the hovering presence of independent chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi, the city has pulled away from the financial abyss of a few years ago.

But in those areas where local politicians have been left to their own devices, the record is decidedly less positive. Take education.

It's within the power of the mayor, council and school board to fix the public school system, or at least to put D.C. public education on the path to recovery. Collectively, the city's political elite have done neither. If anything, their infantile bickering over control of the system has made matters worse. What self-respecting school superintendent candidate of proven ability would want to step into the current D.C. food fight involving a mayor who prefers being on the road to being on the job, a school board president with an ego as big as RFK Stadium and FedEx Field combined, and a council with lawmakers as mercurial and unpredictable as Washington's weather?

If city leaders gave the school system half the attention they devote to their own political preservation and self-promotion, school problems would soon be a thing of the past. That's not what's happening.

The mayor flits about here and there attending grip-and-grin sessions in Europe and anyplace else that will have him, even as the council debates education legislation that he dubs critical -- but not important enough to stay home and fight for. And when he's here, what difference does it make? To hear some council members tell it, the mayor's top assistants, Gregory McCarthy and Kelvin Robinson, are the ventriloquists behind the mayoral voice on education anyway. And they don't know diddly squat about the subject.

But poor stewardship isn't just an executive branch malady. How about the council member who draws his annual $92,520 taxpayer-provided salary for part-time work and then turns around and uses members of his city staff to do work for his private law practice? That is a description of at-large Democratic council member Harold Brazil, who has been pulling down a city paycheck since 1991.

By the way, he hopes to get another four years on the D.C. payroll if he is reelected this year. You can credit council Chairman Linda Cropp for making Brazil's continued presence on the council a distinct possibility. She helped persuade Ward 1 Democratic council member Jim Graham to forgo a challenge to Brazil. The reason Graham caved says as much about his grit as it does about Cropp's ability to charm and wear down a target.

Graham was told that a Graham-Brazil contest would be racially divisive, and that a Graham victory would also place the four at-large council seats in the hands of white incumbents. The thought of all that coming to pass was apparently too much for Graham, a certified white liberal, to bear. So he backed out. How about that for a portrait of courage and conviction under fire? That, unfortunately, is the level at which this city operates. The Graham-Brazil episode is illustrative of what the children of the District are up against. They come in second to the puerile interests that dominate the minds of our city's leaders.

Join me in a glimpse of life away from city hall. Here's the latest report from the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency on juvenile drug testing for April 2004. Thirty-four kids, aged 16, were arrested: 18 tested positive for drugs. Sixty percent of 48 arrestees aged 17 tested positive. Of the 27 13-year-olds arrested, four tested positive.

Other statistics jump off the page: four 12-year-olds arrested; four 11-year-olds arrested; three 10-year-olds arrested. Ten? My goodness: I have a grandson who'll reach that age in November. Tragically, it gets worse. We've had more child homicides so far in 2004 than in all of last year. Thirteen youths 17 years of age or younger have been murdered in the District already.

And the city's response?

Today there will be a walk of remembrance marking the violent deaths of D.C. children, followed by inspirational music and prayers at Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road SE, led by the Rev. Willie Wilson. Other preachers and politicians, including the mayor, will be there.

And where two or more are gathered, expect to find you-know-who. Marion Barry will probably be there too.

kingc@washpost.com