NOW THAT CARL A. Cohn has joined Rudolph F. Crew in turning down the D.C. school superintendent post -- and at this incredibly late stage in the search for a permanent school chief -- interim superintendent Robert C. Rice is just about all the city's got. The picture is not completely bleak. Parents and educators should be relieved to learn that Mr. Rice, an able and experienced administrator, has expressed a willingness to continue in his post until school and city leaders can get their act together. When that day might come is beyond the range of human prediction, but Mr. Rice seems capable of holding the system together a bit longer. We nonetheless live in hope that a qualified candidate who wants to come to the District can be identified and recruited. Moreover, it would be rather nice, and in the interest of the system's 64,000 students, if that objective could be achieved before calendar year 2004 expires.

After all, Paul L. Vance resigned as superintendent eight months ago. Since then school and city officials have engaged in closed-door meetings ostensibly to discuss the vacancy and how to go about filling it with minimum participation by the public. On that score, they've been wildly successful, having kept parents, teachers and taxpayers completely in the dark for most of the school year. During the interim, the "leaders" have also indulged in noisy public fights over the school governance question. In all they have managed, through their clunkiness, to scare away the kind of talent the city needs.

Regrettably, all of this is lost on Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who regard themselves as part of an all-knowing "education collaborative" and as master recruiters, to boot. In fact, their collective effort has been an embarrassment to the city and a disservice to the school system. It's time they recognized that the problem rests with themselves.

It's also time to abolish the unwieldy, politically rigged search committee and turn the job over to a competent local search firm and a committee consisting of the school board's more level-headed and less ego-driven members. That panel should conduct its deliberations openly, with doors closed only to protect confidential personal information; the public, after all, can be trusted. Meanwhile, the mayor, his staff and council members should recede into the background, leaving it to the school board to seek, vet and recruit a qualified candidate to run the District's nearly $1 billion educational system.