When Vincent Reed, former D.C. school superintendent, took his job in 1976, he was sure he would resign or be fired before his contract expired. He made it through one three-year term, but quit the $54,000-a-year post in 1980, before his second three-year contract ran out, to take advantage of early retirement and to escape insurmountable problems with the controversial D.C. Board of Education.

In Fairfax County, the nation's 10th-largest school system, the school board and an outside consulting group spent months searching nationwide for a new superintendent in 1979. The man selected, Lynton Deck, was forced to resign from his $68,000-a-year job two years later because of conflicts with board members who disliked his leadership style.

Now Montgomery County, using a California-based consulting firm, is searching for its fourth school superintendent in eight years to replace Edward Andrews who, fatigued by 70-hour work weeks and constant controversies, is retiring from his $74,000-a-year post in July. In a recent interview published in Education Week, Andrews was asked what can be done to prepare superintendents for the job. "Aside from suits of armor and psychiatric hospitals . . . ," he quipped.

The dramatic turnover in superintendents, in Washington and across the nation, reflects a growing politicization of public education and the changing expectations society now has for its schools and its educational leaders.

Nationwide, school systems of all sizes have had to offer exorbitant salaries to attract candidates with the imagination and stomach for the job. School boards today are looking for superintendents who combine business experience and political savvy with educational flair, according to a recent study by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and they are hiring sophisticated consulting groups to conduct nationwide searches to find them.

But even time-consuming and costly searches offer no guarantees. The average tenure of a school superintendent, currently about 5.6 years, has dropped in the last decade, from 6.5 years in 1972.

"It has almost gotten to be that the job is too big for one person," says Reed, now a vice president for communications at The Washington Post. "Once you become a superintendent you are no longer an educator. You're a manager and a politician."

School superintendents once kept busy planning course curricula and handling personnel problems. Now they increasingly become victims of school issues that have a distinct political tint: desegregation, school closings, sex education, education for the handicapped, prayer in schools and teacher strikes.

In the District, Reed says, each of 22 school closing proposals he made "turned into a blood bath." In Montgomery County, former superintendent Charles M. Bernardo resigned in 1978 after sharp disagreement with the Board of Education over the issue of busing. Now D.C. Superintendent Floretta McKenzie, who replaced Reed, estimates that 40 percent of her time is spent on political matters.

The intrusion of emotional politics and vocal citizens into school affairs is partly the result of a national demographic revolution that has redefined the role of public schools. With divorce rates climbing, more women entering the job market, and American families increasingly mobile, schools, acting in loco parentis, have taken on the added responsibility of child-rearing.

This new dimension has raised more questions about the direction of education--which values should be taught to children and which omitted--and has invited even more political debate into the schools.

The political undercurrent has created new tensions between superintendents and elected school board members who, like Board Member Marion Greenblatt in Montgomery County and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, often use their positions as stepping stones to seek higher political office.

"There are board members who use their elective office to gain political visibility and to build a constituency," says Paul Salmon, executive director of the administrators' association. "There are people posturing all over the place, trying to make a name for themselves. It exacerbates all the problems" of a superintendent.

Augustus Steinhilber, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, notes, "You can't please both sides. The superintendent gets to be an easy fall guy for the board, even if he is totally blameless. He becomes a sacrificial lamb."

Nowhere was the animosty between a school board and a superintendent more pronounced than in Montgomery County in 1978, when Bernardo succeeded in launching a racial integration plan that originated a few years earlier under the threat of a federal court order. Bernardo and supporters of the integration plan came under sharp attack by some community groups, and by newly elected conservative board members who had made him the chief issue in their campaign.

Bernardo resigned after the new board took office but the bitterness engendered by the episode still lingers. Last week the former Montgomery superintendent, now a real estate agent in Florida, filed a suit alleging that his critics in the county sabotaged his efforts to get a job as head of the Utah school system.

Some educators say that superintendents are trapped by budgetary problems as well as political tangles, unable to please the varied community groups now active in school affairs.

"Although the situation is improving in Montgomery County, in the broadest sense, looking at it nationally, the consensus that has to exist to support the public schools has been fragmented," says Montgomery Del. Lucille Maurer, a former school board member. "There are greater differences among teachers, parents, school officials over the direction of the schools. The superintendent is a firing-line job. It's aggravated during a time of retrenchment because there are no goodies to give out. There is such competition for funds. It can be a no-win situation. You just burn out. You have only so much capital with these groups. When you run out of goodies all your capital is gone."

To attract qualified superintendents, school systems have to offer salaries and fringe benefits that compete with equivalent positions in private industry.

The superintendent's job in Highland Park, Ill., for example, a school system with fewer than 4,000 students, recently was advertised at $80,000.

Ruth Love, who took over the financially troubled system in Chicago, the nation's third largest, is paid $120,000 a year. The average superintendent's salary in the Washington metropolitan area is close to $70,000, on par with the salaries paid to the governors of Maryland and Virginia and more than that of the D.C. mayor.

These financial incentives and the political challenge of school superintendencies has begun to change the expectations of the job, and even the sort of people attracted to it.

Although the overwhelming majority of superintendents (like school prinicipals) are still white males--women and minorities make up less than 5 percent of the nation's 14,000 superintendents--there is a trend toward younger men and women who find controversy exciting. The average age of superintendents is 49, and increasingly they prepare themselves in jobs in the school system's central offices. In the past, the vast majority came through the ranks of teachers and principals.

"I don't know that I think it's a great job," says former Montgomery superintendent Homer Elseroad, who retired in 1975, just as desegregation became a controversial issue. "But it's full of excitement and there is more than enough opportunity to be stimulated. What a lot of people call controversy, I call active citizen input that should be applauded."

The preparation of superintendents is also changing, according to the administrators' group, which reports a dramatic increase in the past 10 years in the number of superintendents who hold doctoral degrees. Today, 28 percent have doctorates, mostly in education, compared to only 12 percent in 1971.

And when superintendents leave the profession, many go into fields other than education. In 1982, 25 percent of superintendents surveyed by the AASA said they were interested in doing something else, partly because of a growing belief that the status of their profession is declining, according to the AASA report. If this trend continues, the report warns, school systems will have increasing difficulty recruiting superintendents who may be inclined to take higher paying jobs in private industry.

Despite the legendary ordeals of the modern superintendency, there are a handful of success stories around the country.

Superintendent Joe Davis in Columbus, Ohio, is admired for "pulling off one of the slickest desegregation plans" ever seen, says Salmon of the AASA. Houston, Chicago, and Detroit boast of effective superintendents whose popularities have not waned in the face of political crises. Montgomery's Andrews, in contrast to the county school board, survived tumultous school closings last year with his reputation virtually untarnished. And D.C.'s McKenzie is credited with renewing parental interest in the schools and generating more public enthusiasm about education.

"I look at the job as a mediator between many different groups," says the AASA's Salmon, who was a superintendent for 24 years. "Some call it a spear-catcher. Many older superintendents have come up without controversy and in school systems where students are not diverse. I don't believe you have to become a sacrifical lamb. You see more and more superintendents who don't bitch about it. They know what comes with the territory."