Shaken by school superintendent Frederick D. Holliday's charge in a suicide note that "petty politics" and racial infighting had driven him to kill himself, city leaders today began searching for answers and a fitting memorial to the tragedy.

Schoolhouse flags flew at half mast, 77,000 schoolchildren bowed their heads in moments of silence and caller after caller telephoned radio talk shows with expressions of bewilderment, sorrow, shock and disbelief.

At the same time, some sought to put some distance between the city's rough brand of politics and Holliday's frustration with members of the school board that he said had taken the joy, meaning and purpose from his life.

"The man just couldn't take that pressure," said City Council President George L. Forbes. But "you can't read into his death the implication that things are wrong with the political system in Cleveland . This is not true. There is something wrong with the Board of Education."

Yet even before Holliday's body was flown tonight to his native Philadelphia for burial, observers doubted that the tragedy would end this town's version of the political warfare that has become a fact of life -- and in this case, apparently, death -- for school superintendents in racially divided large cites.

While public statements continued to praise Holliday as a nonpolitical public servant, others complained that he had allowed himself to be used by white board members intent on preserving their power.

Holliday, the city's 80,000-a-year superintendent since 1982, was found shot to death early Monday morning in the stairwell of Aviation High School, adjacent to the city's Burke Lakefront Airport. The Cuyahoga County coroner ruled his death a suicide.

A typewritten note found nearby and signed by Holliday said that "fighting among school board members" and "petty politics" had made his life "meaningless."

"There is a mindlessness that has nothing to do with the education of the children or the welfare of the city," the note said. "Use this event to rid yourselves of petty politics, racial politics, greed, hate and corruption. The city deserves better. The children deserve better."

The climate Holliday walked into when he became superintendent was similar to elsewhere in the nation, especially in large, midwestern and northeastern cities where black populations are growing and power is changing hands.

About half the city's population is black, as are nearly 80 percent of the students in its public schools. Blacks are one vote short of a majority on the City Council and one short of a majority on the school board.

While many black politicians here are criticized for couching their arguments in racial terms, Holliday appealed to some liberal whites with his willingness to subordinate race as an issue and break ranks with other black leaders.

Holliday was a Harvard University graduate who earned his education stripes -- and his nickname 'Doc' -- in the tough public schools of Philadelphia where he spent 21 years as a teacher, principal and administrator.

Before that he spent seven years as school superintendent in York, Pa., where his professional triumphs were marred by a personal tragedy. In 1975, his wife, stricken by terminal cancer, committed suicide in the basement of the family home. Holliday was superintendent of schools in Plainfield, N.J., for a year before coming to Cleveland.

In Cleveland, Holliday developed close friendships with many mass media opinion makers and some critics said he used these ties to gloss over shortcomings of his administration.

Some student test scores and student attendance improved during his tenure, but much of that was due to other factors, critics said.

However, others credited Holliday's manner with helping to increase confidence in the public schools -- and the city's reputation. Some worried today that Holliday's death and the factors he blamed for it might make him the last black superintendent.

Cleveland blacks are especially sensitive about such a prospect because this is the only major city in America to have elected its first black mayor, Carl Stokes in 1967, and not elect another black mayor since.