Every year for the past four, Montgomery County history and government teacher Thomas J. Timco has gathered all his students' essays and term papers and burned them in the school incinerator before he headed off for summer vacation.

But now, Timco's annual rite has presented school officials with a novel legal question. At issue: who owns a student's paper -- the teacher or the student?

According to a memorandum prepared last month by Montgomery County School Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo, the school board's attorney has researched the issue for several weeks and has been unable to find a clear answer to the question.

The study began when David Naimon, the nonvoting student member of the school board, asked the superintendent for a legal opinion on the matter after receiving an inquiry from one of Timco's students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac.

Several students interviewed yesterday complained that the papers represented their work and should belong to them.

"He says we can always make copies of the papers but we really don't have time for that," said one student, who asked that her name not be used. "It's one of his rules that we have to give our work back to him before the end of each quarter, but it's kind of degrading. I guess he just doesn't trust us."

Timco said yesterday that he initiated the practice because "I, myself, have been burned too many times by reading papers I had already read two years before."

"I and other teachers feel suckered when that kind of thing happens, Timco added.

Timco, who also teaches two law classes at the school, said that on "unwritten contract" exists between students and teachers "that says I require a product from students, namely papers, and they require a product from me, namely my grade and comments. I keep their product and they keep mine."

If a student forgets to return an essay or paper to him, Timco says he substantially lowers the original mark.

"I know of one guy who was really proud of getting an A on one paper, but he didn't return it," one student said. "So the teacher just gave him a C and let it go at that."

Timco said the return-of-work rule is part of a set of regulations that he imposes on students at the beginning of each school year. "I've got all sorts of goodies, like deadlines and proper essay construction that I call my effective domain. I'm just trying to instill some moral fiber in the students so that they don't pick up bad habits that they'll carry the rest of their lives."

Timco, who has been teaching in Montgomery County schools for seven years, said he prepares many essay questions for 10th graders that are similar to the ones he asks juniors and seniors.

"That way you can make a clear judgment," he said. "A 10th grade masterpiece is usually a 12th grade D."

Timco added that his annual paperburning rite was unique in the school system. "I'm pretty peculiar in that," he said.

Board member Dr. Daryl W. Shaw, told that one teacher annually destroys his students' papers, said yesterday, "I don't approve of it. I think any and all work done by a student belongs to him. Teachers aren't too imaginative if they have to use the same topics and questions on different grades of students," Shaw said.

Board counsel Charles Reese declined to comment on the question yesterday, but said he would present a written opinion to the board by the beginning of next week.