As D.C. school officials open their search for a new superintendent, 16 other cities also are looking for one, creating what educators describe as intense competition for a short supply of experienced candidates.

The large number of openings for urban school superintendents is being called clear and unprecedented evidence that the big-city jobs, long considered the pinnacle of professional achievement for a school administrator, have lost their allure despite pay that averages almost $100,000 a year.

In frustrated and sometimes bitter tones, urban superintendents complained primarily of intrusive school boards whose members are often divided politically and generally disrespectful of an executive's authority.

Leading a city school district has become so difficult that several superintendents have abandoned top city jobs, moving down the traditional career ladder to take less stressful jobs in the calmer environment of smaller, suburban districts.

"You're caught in a kind of political quagmire a lot of the time. All of which leads you to believe that life is too short for this," said Paul Houston, outgoing superintendent in Tucson. "The human body and human soul are just not built for long exposure to this job."

Houston, 46, has announced he will resign after five years to oversee a Riverside, Calif., district that is roughly half the size of Tucson. He said Tucson's board repeatedly interfered with his leadership, meeting 172 times last school year to vote on such matters as every appointment and out-of-town field trip. "I've actually been criticized by board members here for leading," he said with exasperation.

Ronald E. Etheridge, 48, is departing Columbus, Ohio, with 65,000 students, for a district with 13,000 students in Santa Barbara, Calif. "It is smaller and more easily managed. It has a veteran school board. It is easier to reach consensus," Etheridge explained.

Besides the District, Tucson and Columbus, superintendent searches are underway or planned in Austin, Tex., Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Detroit, Hartford, Conn., Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Memphis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, Savannah, Ga., and Toledo, Ohio, according to the Council of Great City Schools.

"It's extraordinary, the pileup. Usually, in a year, we'll have five or six turnovers," said Samuel Husk, executive director of the council, which represents 47 urban school districts.

The decisions of experienced superintendents such as Etheridge and Houston to head to smaller cities, and the decision of others to leave academic administration altogether, will leave city school systems competing to hire from a shrinking list of candidates, experts said.

"It's a real crisis because you've got more vacancies than you do highly qualified candidates -- that is, people who are seasoned in the work," said Floretta D. McKenzie, a former D.C. superintendent.

McKenzie, whose educational consulting firm has done urban superintendent searches, said the typical applicant pool has shrunk to about 35 from 80 to 100 five years ago. "A cadre of people came through the leadership positions, and we haven't replenished the pool," she said.

M. Donald Thomas, another search consultant and a former Salt Lake City superintendent, said the applicant pool is even smaller for urban systems that want a minority superintendent to serve an enrollment that is mostly nonwhite. "Because you have to be black or Hispanic, your pool of candidates is limited," he said.

According to the National Alliance of Black School Administrators, 179 of 15,600 school districts have black superintendents -- including Chicago and Philadelphia, which are among the largest school systems. But a 1989 survey of 52 urban superintendents conducted by the National School Boards Association found that most superintendents were white and over age 50.

McKenzie said the shortage of black superintendents is partly caused by difficulties they have getting hired somewhere else once they have resigned under fire or been dismissed. White superintendents in similar conditions have fewer problems finding other jobs, she said. "We used to say that when a black superintendent gets it, you go 'ko-plat' on the sidewalk," she said.

Black superintendents who have recently left big-city jobs include Jerome Jones in St. Louis, Jerome Harris in Atlanta and Laval Wilson in Boston. None has yet to find a similar position elsewhere.

Several educators and search consultants mentioned Boston as a district expected to have great problems finding a new superintendent. Boston's City Council recently recommended abolishing the school board after Prince George's County Superintendent John Murphy withdrew from a list of semifinalists, another candidate searchers thought was black turned out to be white and a third, it was learned, was fired in Savannah.

"They're going to have a very difficult job finding anyone, black, white, male or female, to come in and risk their careers," Etheridge said.

After the public spectacle surrounding the dismissal of Andrew Jenkins as superintendent of D.C. schools, the District is also expected to have similar troubles.

"People don't understand that when you fire people without any grace -- what does that say to somebody applying for the job?" said Robert S. Peterkin, Milwaukee's superintendent.

In addition, the $85,000 that the District paid Jenkins ranks near the bottom of superintendent salaries in large urban districts, Husk said. The Educational Research Service, a nonprofit firm in Arlington, said superintendent salaries averaged $95,735 last year in school districts with more than 25,000 students.

Peterkin will leave Milwaukee next summer to direct a new Harvard doctoral program designed to train urban superintendents, especially minorities. McKenzie's consulting firm has a Rockefeller Foundation grant to plan a similar, non-degree program for school administrators.

Meanwhile, search consultants said city school systems will scramble for experienced applicants, promote from within more often, and perhaps turn to nontraditional candidates outside education.

The District's advertisement, for instance, says it will consider "candidates from business, industry, government and universities that have a demonstrated interest in education." Members of the D.C. School Board's search committee did not respond to interview requests.

But Etheridge said he doubts those strategies will meet the demand for capable superintendents in big cities.

"I just think that the leadership that the school districts will have will be less than what we would have hoped for the children there," he said.