Frederick Douglass Holliday, superintendent of the city's improving but still struggling school system, was found today in a high school stairwell, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the chest.

A typewritten note left behind by the city's first black superintendent said infighting and "petty politics" on the city's often racially divided school board had made him feel that his job -- and apparently his life -- had become "meaningless."

"I have enjoyed until now being your superintendent. As of this moment, it appears that my last piece of dignity is being stripped," wrote Holliday, who was expected to be told next month that his contract for the job he had held for just over two years would not be renewed.

"The purpose seems to be lost. There is a mindlessness that has nothing to do with the education of children or the welfare of the city. This hurts most of all," he wrote. "Use this event to rid yourselves of petty politics, racial politics, greed, hate and corruption. The city deserves better. The children deserve better."

The 58-year-old widower and Harvard University graduate ended the two-page "Open Letter to the People of Cleveland" with an apologetic postscript: "Kids, if there are any errors in this letter, I did not proof it carefully."

Holliday's death, which apparently occurred Saturday, surprised and perplexed many in this ailing industrial city.

Both Holliday's close friend, advertising executive Sandra Johnson, and his strongest supporter on the seven-member school board, onetime board president Alva T. Bonda, said Holliday had grown weary of the persistent criticism of the board's three black members, particularly Edward S. Young.

Bonda, who is white, said he believed that the three blacks had made an agreement to vote for Ralph J. Perk Jr., son of the city's former mayor, as board president in return for a promise of Perk's support in their plans to oust Holliday. "They were outspoken that they were saying they didn't want him," Bonda said in a telephone interview.

On Sunday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city's only daily newspaper, ran a front-page story on Holliday's apparently unsuccessful efforts to save the city money by turning over the management of the troubled school bus system to a private firm.

Young had been the most fervent critic of the 77,000-student system. Holliday was interviewed for the story on Friday. Cuyahoga County officials said they believe that the next day the superintendent went to the Aviation High School at the city's downtown Burke Lakefront Airport, where he kept a small plane, and shot himself in the chest with a .357 magnum.

"I think Friday night he found out that the Plain Dealer was going to do that particular story and it triggered something in him," Bonda said. "I think it may have been one of the last straws."

"He was concerned about that but certainly not to this extent," Johnson said in a telephone interview today. "I don't think he ever blamed the Plain Dealer . . . . Keep in mind that 'Doc' had not seen the article."

Young told a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer today that his criticism of Holliday had never been personal.

"I think the district is poorly run, but I didn't think anyone would take their life . . . . He tried to put this criticism in the realm of petty politics, but it was not that at all," Young said of Holliday.

Young said he was concerned for his own safety in the wake of Holliday's death.

Holliday had maintained that during his tenure, students had improved their attendance and their scores on standardized reading tests, renovation had begun on 22 schools, computer laboratories had been set up in senior high schools and more than $3 million had been spent for new books.

Before Holliday came here from the Plainfield, N.J., school system, Cleveland's schools had been taken over by the state because they did not have enough money to maintain operations without borrowing heavily.

The year after his appointment, citizens gave what Holliday and others interpreted as a vote of confidence by approving a $33 million increase in property taxes earmarked for the schools.

But Young and others complained that Holliday was too close to Bonda, who was board president when Holliday was hired. Young and others complained of receiving inadequate information from Holliday, took issue with some of his recommendations for top staff posts and complained of delays in implementing desegregation plans.

On Thursday, the board, prodded by its black members, retained special counsel to assist it in evaluating Holliday's perforance before deciding whether to renew his $80,000-a-year contract.