THE FIASCO with class and room assignments at Eastern Senior High School on Wednesday marred an otherwise smooth start to the school year, according to interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice. There is reason neither to doubt his otherwise positive assessment of opening day nor to take issue with his firing of three officials held accountable for scheduling failures that resulted in hundreds of students being turned away from Eastern on the first day of school. By Friday afternoon, class schedules had been completed for nearly all of Eastern's registered students and Mr. Rice expressed confidence that the high school will get off to a better start after the Labor Day holiday. With Eastern Principal Norman S. Smith Jr. and assistant superintendent Juan R. Baughn now among the ranks of the unemployed, the administration must scramble to place new leaders at the helm of a senior high school that is sorely in need of better academic stewardship.

The SAT scores for Eastern graduates highlight the challenge. While D.C. public school SAT scores in 2003-04 improved modestly over the previous year, Eastern's average scores declined from 738 in '02-'03 to 731 in '03-'04. The national average last year was 1026. We do not mean to single out Eastern's performance. Average SAT scores also declined at Anacostia, Ballou, Coolidge, Luke Moore Academy and School Without Walls senior high schools. In that context, the scheduling conflicts at Eastern represent a small measure of the demands on the school system that Mr. Rice and incoming superintendent Clifford B. Janey must meet. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Eastern's bungled opening as an isolated event that can be easily forgotten. It's not. The problem of staff unreliability in the school system extends beyond Eastern.

On Thursday two school system managers were terminated based on internal audits. That case, involving questionable contracting for copy machine services and the possible misspending of millions of dollars, has been turned over to the city's inspector general and the U.S. attorney's office. In addition, the inspector general has been called in to investigate the evaluation and award of the school system's multimillion-dollar security contract. In both instances, school leaders believe the attention of professional investigators and prosecutors is warranted.

That's a sad commentary on the state of a school system already challenged on the academic front. But all of the above are a measure of the academic and management problems Mr. Janey will inherit, as well as an indication of just how far the school system has declined on the watch of the city's school board, council and mayor.