Where there is power, politics usually is not far behind. The surprise decision by the Chicago School Board this week not to renew the contract of Superintendent Ruth Love may say more about the politicizing of urban school boards than about her abilities.
Urban school-board members, who used to keep low profiles and heed their superintendents' advice, now represent diverse political factions with varied agendas, notes University of Wisconsin education dean John Palmer. ''Superintendents just don't stay very long any more. ... You go in, you make some moves, and pretty soon you use up your silver bullets and run out of friends.''
Dr. Love, a former Oakland, Calif., school superintendent, was hired three years ago after a broad nationwide search. Heralded then as the best candidate available, she survived a strong effort by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a number of other local black leaders to promote another black candidate, Manfred Byrd Jr., a 30-year veteran of the Chicago system who is now an assistant superintendent.
Many consider her accomplishments since then considerable. She has pushed successfully for state funding and more parent and civic involvement in schools. Former Illinois school superintendent Joseph Cronin notes, ''She's tough as nails and tremendously skilled at dramatizing her competence.'' But that high-profile style has bred both a fiercely loyal band of followers and some critics.
School board president George Munoz, who cast the deciding vote against her, says some board members have felt she lacks follow-through and responsiveness to them on policy issues. Some Hispanic leaders say she is insensitive to the needs of their students.
This week the board voted 6 to 5 (with the three Hispanics and three of the four whites in the majority) not to renew Dr. Love's contract, which expires next spring. At the same meeting, the board voted 8 to 3 to reopen negotiations with Mr. Byrd. Passed over for the top post on three other occasions, Byrd had long complained that a promotion by Dr. Love had left him in charge of ''looking out the window.'' Mr. Munoz insists Mr. Byrd is the best man for the job and that the board will look no further.
To City Council member Patrick O'Connor, head of that group's education committee, the combined action at one meeting clearly spells politics. ''They had to be maneuvering. It's just too cozy.''
Dr. Love, supported editorially by both Chicago newspapers, promptly branded the action the result of ''a political deal'' and charged that Chicago Mayor Harold Washington was involved. The mayor, who supported Byrd in 1981, did nothing to actively encourage members to keep her, and one of his top aides recently spoke with her about the possibility of a two-year rather than four-year contract renewal. Dr. Love contends that they simply wanted someone more controllable.