THE CITY of Washington has an emergency on its hands: Vincent E. Reed's departure as school superintendent would be a devastating loss at a most critical point in the struggling system's history. The community cannot afford to let him go.

Dr. Reed -- a man of class, proven skill and unparalleled dedication to the education of this community's children -- must be persuaded to continue on, and every responsible elected official in town should join in an all-out effort to turn the superintendent's decision around.

As so many disheartened residents know only too well, this is no sudden attack of temperament on the part of Dr. Reed. He has been frustrated at every turn by the petty politics and administrative meddling of a fragmented school board. It isn't that Superintendent Reed can't stand the heat and should get out of the kitchen; narrow-minded school board members have been setting fires all over the place. They have undercut his patient and sensible efforts to bring order, hope, pride and excellence to a mostly black, disadvantaged school population.

The pillar of Dr. Reed's administration has been his emphasis on improving the curriculum, measuring students' progress and building a system that could attract and challenge every child in the city. But between budget cuts imposed by a financially pinched city hall and the constant interference of school board members, the superintendent's ability to do his job and deliver results has suffered severely.

Instead of moving responsibly to promote the fundamental improvements sought by Dr. Reed -- such as his critically and constantly thwarted attempts to establish a model academic high school -- too many school board members over the years have become embroiled in personal wars, contests for attention and attempts to usurp the superintendent's authority to administer.

In less than a year, voters face what we consider to be the most important of this city's hard-earned exercises in limited self-government. A majority of the school board will be up for election in what could be the make-or-break test of the elected school board system. Those who seek to serve the cause of public education in the District of Columbia -- now or then -- should be judged on their commitment to keep Vincent Reed on the job, where he is so desperately needed. And citizens in this community should do everything in their power, starting today, to get that message to them while there is time.