On Jan. 26, School Superintendent Frederick Douglass Holliday held a .357 magnum to his chest, pulled the trigger and staggered to his death on the steps of a city high school. He left behind a note saying that the "petty politics" of the Cleveland School Board had rendered his job "meaningless."

Nine months later, Holliday is a "nonissue" in the campaign to elect four members to that still-divided, seven-seat board, and the atmosphere of "petty politics" has been replaced by political jousting of greater proportions.

The board contest climaxing with Tuesday's elections is likely to be the most expensive in the city's history and includes some of Cleveland's best known political names.

Several of them are favored to win, despite critics' charges that in the past they have shown virtually no concern for the schools. Some lament, moreover, that the school system -- with its $380 million annual budget and 9,000 employes -- has become a patronage dream for political upstarts and retreads, despite its token salary of $480 a year and despite Holliday's warnings.

"The impact of his death created a sensationalistic atmosphere of accusations . . . that did little to advance any constructive action for reforming the school district," said Richard C. Israel, director of the public education ministry of the Interchurch Council of Greater Cleveland.

"If anything, the words of Dr. Holliday, who said, 'Put petty politics behind us,' seem to be ignored, based on who's running," Israel said. "I don't think that, given the history of Cleveland, this election is one that promises hope for reform."

Peter B. Halbin, a politically connected publicist, agrees, saying, "It used to be that a position on the school board was kind of a civic exercise, or it was thought of as that. Now it is a political position."

Holliday's death plunged Cleveland into shock and self-examination. Its absence as an issue in the school board contest, however, is neither a simple case of selective municipal amnesia nor icy indifference in this city of about 574,000 on the shores of Lake Erie.

These days, Holliday's personality gets more blame for prompting his death. "I don't subscribe to the theory that the pettiness of the board caused him to do that," Mayor George V. Voinovich (R) said. "I think if he had been a little different person, he could have put up with the pettiness, or basically told them, 'Take your chop and stick it. I'm going somewhere else.' "

The board member most blamed publicly for aggravating Holliday, Edward S. Young, is fighting for his political life in this election. He lost support among some fellow blacks as a relentless critic of the city's first black superintendent, Holliday.

Young has been endorsed, however, by the city's major black- and white-owned newspapers as one of the most "education-oriented" candidates in the 14-person field. "Most people now understand that I was fouled," Young said after a candidate forum last week.

The uncertainty of his reelection stems primarily from the overwhelming edge given well-funded, well-connected candidates in a citywide, vote-for-four election that Clevelanders say will turn primarily on name recognition.

Among those in the field, for instance, is former city councilman James M. Carney Jr., whose father ran two unsuccessful campaigns for mayor and who himself lost a bid for Cuyahoga County recorder. Carney's board campaign is projected to cost at least $40,000, the most expensive in city history.

The field also includes former county recorder, city councilman and state legislator Benny Bonanno, who last year waged a $275,000 losing bid for county commissioner, and Margaret O'Neill, one-time member of the area's transit authority board.

Candidate Cordi Stokes is the daughter of former mayor Carl B. Stokes and spent most of the last 10 years in New York. She moved back to Cleveland last year. Alice G. Butts is the wife of a state senator. Incumbent Joseph G. Tegreene is the former city finance director and was executive secretary to then-Mayor Dennis J. Kucinich. Tegreene, who is white, was a staunch Holliday supporter.

The only other incumbent running, lawyer Stanley E. Tolliver, is a longtime civil rights activist and was considered a less vehement critic of Holliday than was Young.

Former board president Alva T. Bonda is not seeking reelection.

Holliday became superintendent in 1982, taking over an extraordinarily troubled system dominated by the legacy of a 1978 desegregation order from the U.S. District Court.

The board and the superintendent in the often racially troubled city fought the order. In 1980, the court tired of the foot-dragging and installed its own bureaucracy to implement the order.

From 1980 to 1982, the system in effect had rival administrations. By the time Holliday took over, enrollment in the system was about half of what it had been before the desegregation suit was filed in 1973.

Cleveland turned a corner this year with all the candidates for the board saying they supported implementation of the order. Yet, for both black and white parents, the busing remains a time-consuming, unpredictable and at times dangerous drawback to the system.

Voinovich is proud of saying that the city is in a renaissance. He points to a few new peaks in the city's skyline and an upswing in development in some of Cleveland's neighborhoods.

Yet, the perceived quality of public education remains a blemish on the city's reputation, driving to the suburbs many of the younger couples that some consider critical the city's future, raising the cost of living for those who choose to stay in the city and adding to a municipal inferiority complex.

One of every four Cleveland schoolchildren is in a private school. The children of the mayor, some other top city officials and many of the candidates for the school board are among those in private school.

"I don't know what we would have done these last several years without the parochial school system," Voinovich said. "They have done such a marvelous job of providing an alternative to the public school system."

The public schools are generally considered to be improving, but their collective portrait is far from flattering. Last year, for instance, the public schools had 2,900 graduates, but 3,000 dropouts, and only 137 students, including some juniors, took the Scholastic Aptitude Test college entrance exams.

On any given day, 15 percent -- three times the state average -- of the students in the system are absent or truant and half of those who enroll in 10th grade do not graduate.

Four years ago, civic, political and business leaders backed a slate of candidates for the board, only some of whom were elected. This year, there is no such effort, in part because of inability to agree, and in part, one business leader said, because the earlier effort did not thwart bickering.

Voinovich, expected to be an easy winner Tuesday over Democratic challenger Gary Kucinich, brother of the former mayor, said he has staked his lot with the new school superintendent, Robert A. Boyd, who took over Sept. 23. "He's the person who's going to make the difference," the mayor said.

The Cleveland election, with its array of experienced politicians, is an exception among the contests for membership on the nation's 15,350 school boards, and even those five dozen or so in large cities, according to Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

The boards have generally attracted short-term politicians who were graduates of the ranks of parent-teacher associations, who stepped down after two or three terms, though in some places they have been an entry point to electoral politics.

In Cleveland, however, the school board seats are the only citywide posts other than the mayor's, and the fact that few politicians have effectively used them as a springboard to broader political opportunities has not stopped others from trying to do so.

"This will be the most expensive race ever for Cleveland School Board," said William H. Bryant, president of the Growth Association of Greater Cleveland, the area's chamber of commerce. "I wonder if this won't portend of things to come as school boards become more visible.

"You're going to have politicians going to where the politics are, unfortunately," Bryant said. "I don't think they'll ever go back to that small-town approach."