WITH SCANT understanding of the damage they are doing to Washington's public school system, members of the city's school board are flunking their most critical test. Instead of doing something serious to keep Vincent Reed in office beyond tomorrow, members seem content to shrug their shoulders and star at the ceiling -- and to hell with a community that clearly wants to keep the best adminstrator the schools can remember. Just so they realize: if the deadline passes and Dr. Reed leaves, there won't be a safe seat on the board -- and 5 of the 11 will be up for election in about 10 months.

This assumes, of course, that disgusted parents, local govenment officials and other voters don't react by moving to kill the elected-school-board structure entirely. It shouldn't come to that, nor does Vincent Reed want that to happen. It would amount to an admission, one we are not prepared to make, that Washington is incapable of electing intelligent, cooperative and caring people to a school board.

Not so. If the school board members can't find a collective way to keep Dr. Reed on, the community has a way to get them off. It can replace them with members who appreciate a capable adminstrator and who can place the education of a mostly black, disadvantaged school population above any selfish political ambitions.

The recruiting and reviewing of people willing and able to fill this bill should begin right away. There's no need to wait for the next regularly scheduled crisis in January, when the traditional clawing and scratching among the members starts over who should be president.

Responsible community organizations -- the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, the D.C. Citizens for Better Public Education and the parent-teacher organizations -- should make their first order of business a joint effort to recruit candidates and to come up with specific questions and qualifications that could serve as a test in endorsing a slate. A slate endorsed by a citywide coalition of concerned residents would be a vast improvement over the political free-for-all that has existed.

By now, the importance of voting in a school board election -- even for those who have no connection with the schools other than helping to pay for them -- should be abundantly clear. With a clean slate to vote for, the city could do itself and the next generation an enormous service. v