Cynics here joke that the antics of the local board of education are the funniest show in town.

But two weeks ago the State of New Jersey decided the public education system in its capital city was really a tragedy, and ordered a 22-month takeover of the 17,000-student district.

The case for the takeover, the most aggressive act of state intervention in a school district in New Jersey, was convincing.

A state education department report found, among other problems, gross patronage hiring by the board, mismanagement of state and federal funds, and about half of the city's 25 schools in dangerous disrepair.

All this was in addition to a mounting financial deficit -- $1 million for the current school year -- and some of the lowest scores in the state on standardized tests of students.

The report came down hardest on the local school board which, with one black and seven white members, has been under attack by the city's blacks and Hispanics, who comprise 50 and 15 percent of the school population respectively.

One board practice is a particular sore spot: all job applications brought to the board are accompained by a letter code to tell board members the job candidate's race.

So a state-appointed "monitor general" set up camp in Trenton's school administration building Nov. 13, taking control of the district's $42 million annual budget and its personnel practices, facilities and education programs.

The action comes after the failure of two years of milder state intervention aimed at correcting specific problems.

The board has a reputation for bickering and confusion.

For example, several board members spent hours the night before the state takeover arguing over who was at fault.

Said one educator about the school board: "If I had a class of students like them I'd knock 'em around."

The economy of this riverfront city of 100,000 has been on the decline for 15 years, primarily because of the exodus of heavy industry. With the economy on the slide, racial and morale problems of the inner city have become more severe, and the sum has meant the steady deterioration of what was once a respected urban school system.

Many students who could afford to leave have abandoned the district. "There are 7,000 whites in private schools," says Trenton's superintendent, Jean Emmons. "The private schools love us. If we did our job, they'd be out of business."

The problems of Trenton's public schools are not unique in New Jersey. The state recently has had to take a limited role in solving financial problems and improving educational programs in Newark and New Brunswick as well.

But in Trenton, the state board of education found problems "of the most grave and disturbing magnitude." With the rare unanimous backing of the state education board, educational commissioner Fred G. Burke decided to use the powers vested in him by New Jersey's 1975 education law.

The state's monitor in Trenton, Dr. Anthony Catrambone, will have final say over all financial and personnel matters in the district. He also is empowered to withold $31 million in state and federal funds to force the board and administration to make certain decisions on a broad range of educational issues, including special education and bilingual programs.

"There's no question who's going to be boss," one board member said of Catrambone last week.