IF CARL COHN, reportedly a well-regarded former superintendent in Long Beach, Calif., has his way, he could become the District's third interim school chief in nine months. But should Mr. Cohn -- who says he won't commit to serving D.C. schools longer than a year, and then only under certain conditions -- get his way? The terms he has set for considering the D.C. post may serve his interests, but do they respond to the needs of the beleaguered D.C. public school system? That is the question the school board and city officials involved in the selection of the next superintendent must answer.

At the outset, city and school officials responsible for finding a superintendent should acknowledge that they haven't exactly covered themselves with glory. In fact, they have provided a textbook example of how not to conduct a superintendent search. The time and money wasted since Paul L. Vance abruptly quit in November should make them hang their heads in shame. Never have so many done so little for so long in behalf of the District's children.

Now comes Mr. Cohn, once No. 2 on the city's short list of superintendent candidates. With the decision of top candidate Rudolph F. Crew to spurn the District for Miami, and with the new school year only two months away, Mr. Cohn's elevation to first choice has put him in the catbird seat. He doesn't like much of what he has seen in the District and now won't consent to come for even one year unless certain changes are made. He wants the school system's fiscal year aligned with the school calendar; the school system's financial officer reporting to the superintendent instead of the city's chief financial officer; greater control over contracts; and a summit of city and congressional leaders to reach written agreement on governance and management of the schools. Then he might consider coming to the District for a year. Otherwise, California there he stays.

But what of the students? A school district that has had four superintendents in the past eight years, in addition to two acting chiefs in the past eight months, needs stability. That was the generally held opinion among city, school and community leaders. The need for stable leadership was the reason various groups recently came together and agreed to keep the same school governance structure in place for at least four years. Mr. Cohn had even advocated such an arrangement. But now he is unwilling to make a commitment to be part of the much-needed stability.

There must be a better meeting of the minds. If Mr. Cohn is thought to be good for a school system that needs dramatic improvement in administrators, teachers and academic standards, he should be encouraged to stay longer than one year. The bureaucracy will have a field day with a superintendent who is a lame duck on the first day of school. The burden is on city and school leaders to finally get this right. That means returning to the table with Mr. Cohn and negotiating in the best interest of students.