Robert Swennes offered his sympathy to both the Arlington County school board and Superintendent Larry Cuban for their "unpleasant task" of deciding which elementary schools would be sacrificed on the economic altar of dwindling enrollment. But the only solution that Swennes, the president of the Leeway Civic Association, could facetiously offer was an Arlington baby boom.

"I would get very excited if there was more breeding in Arlington," responded Cuban with equal drollery, prompting one of the few laughs from a standing-room-only crowd at last week's public hearing on school closings.

The hearing was the first of two the school board will hold before deciding in December which two elementary schools to close from among five being considered -- Reed, Ashlawn, Jackson, McKinley and Tuckahoe.

Those schools were targeted because enrollment at two of them, Ashlawn and McKinley, last year fell below 1 1/2 classes per grade level (224 students), automatically making them candidates for consolidation. Because the two schools are adjacent, the school board directed to staff to consider to large area which included five other nearby schools.

On Sept. 13, the superintendent's staff released a study, which recommended that two elementary schools be closed and suggested three options to the school board for determining the schools. Glencarlyn and Barrett, which were among the seven schools studied, were removed from the list because enrollment at both schools had remained "relatively stable" for the last six years. Tuckahoe was kept on the list, but was the only one of the five remaining schools not mentioned in any of the options suggested to the school board.

At last week's hearing speakers for Ashlawn, Jackson, McKinley and Reed argued that closing their particular schools would be a mistake. Some of the speakers laced the presentations with emotional appeals. Others based their cases on costs analyses and racial considerations.All of the arguments were followed by partisan applause.

David Moran, the PTA representative from Jackson Elementary, presented a 17-page study that countered the recommendations in the staff report, which Moran characterized as "insufficient, misleading and inconclusive."

Moran argued that Jackson was the most "cost-efficient" school among the five being considered for closing and challenged the school board not to be swayed by public pressure.

"We are convinced that your decision can only be based on an objective examination of the the facts of the case, not on such extraneous and emotional factors as the number of persons who have signed petitions, attended rallies and the like."

Moran's reference seemed aimed at ashlawn supporters, who presented a petition to the school board in August signed by almost 1,000 people. At least half of last week's audience wore Ashlawn red paper apples pinned to their clothes.

"At a time when, in many of the nation's suburban public schools, teachers and principals have lost the support of parents, the support in Ashlawn of our principal and our teachers has never been greater," said Joan Horwitt, president of the Ashlawn Coalition.

Anne Thompson, a parent supporting Reed, said the racial balance at Reed was reason enough to keep it open.

"We have at Reed in a natural setting what we've passed laws to force in other places."

Another Reed supporter, PTA representative Don

Manly, said it made no sense to close a school which required almost no busing. "walking to school," continued Manly, "is an American tradition."

One Ashlawn parent, Bernard Cohen, criticized both the audience and the school board.

"I'm appalled that people in this room do not band together and oppose you in closing any schools," said Cohen.

In contrast Jane Bartlett, president of the Arlington League of Women Voters, asked the board to close not two, but three elementary schools.

"With a large number of students in each school, a richer and more diverse educational program can be offered," said Bartlett.

"That takes great courage," smiled school board member Richard Barton after Bartlett's testimony.

The next step in the consolidation process will be on Oct. 25, when Superintendent Cuban is to present his recommendations to the school board. That will be followed by another public hearing Nov. 8 and a school board work session nov. 29. The final decision by the board is scheduled for Dec. 6.