Fairfax County School board watchers will get their first glimpse of Mary Collier tonight as she tries out the Dranesville District seat on the board for the first time.

While Collier's admirers say she is "young, gutsy, bright and eminently qualified" for the job, detractors say her appointment was a political Christmas present for a job well done.

Collier, who succeeds Nancy Falck, served as Falck's campaign manager in her successful race for the county Board of Supervisors this fall.

During the campaign, Falck promised to make all appointments on a nonpolitical basis. To ensure objectivity, she appointed a bipartisan committee to screen applicants for the school board position.

Harriet (Happy) Bradley, who chaired the committee and supported Falck in the supervisor's race, said the group received 12 applications for the school board post and three were forwarded to Falck, including Collier's. Bradley says Collier was the most qualified candidate.

"I'll tell you this," Bradley said."The committee chortled over that. The committee would have been surprised if Mary Collier hadn't been the choice.

"We knew it would be a hard decision for Nancy -- but I assure you, we were absolutely free to send any of the resumes that we chose."

As might be expected, the appointment has drawn some criticism.

"As supervisor, that's Mrs. Falck's privilege, one of the perks," said Emily Miller, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. "But I had hoped all the supervisors would begin to follow the example set by my supervisor, Jim Scott.

"He holds public hearings for both the school board and planning commission appointments.The past few appointments by other supervisors have been conducted in the same way.

"After all, the community ought to have some say about who is going to serve them, and even though they only get a couple of thousand dollars, it's still public money."

(School board members are paid $4,500 per year plus expenses.)

In the middle of this rather mild controversy is Mary Collier, a 37-year-old mother of three, who says she anticipated the criticism but is confident about her qualifications.

"Well, I have two children in school and one ready to start. My training is in education and all of my volunteer work has been in education," Collier said."My husband says this is a natural step for me."

Collier is a native of Iowa and attended Grinnell College there, where she majored in English literature. After her graduation, Collier moved to Raleigh, N.C., where she taught high school English and served as a drama coach while her husband attended Duke Law School. The Colliers moved to Arlington in 1971 and to McLean in 1972.

"Mary taught in Raleigh and had children in Fairfax," jokes her husband, Calvin Collier, who is a Washington lawyer.

Mrs. Collier appears to be the quintessential suburban volunteer. During her eight years in Fairfax she has been involved in numerous school and community activities -- performing all of them gratis.

One of her most valuable activities may be her recent membership on a school board task force on declining enrollments. Because of that role Collier says she is well-acquainted with what may prove to be one of the most important issues facing the school board this year -- school closings.

Collier also served two terms as president of the Chesterbrook Elementary School PTA. The former principal of the school, L. G. McClung, said he was delighted to learn of her appointment.

"She'll bring a common sense approach to the school board," he said. "Mary has a lot of experience in the school system. Perhaps the thing she's the best at is being a good listener, but I've always called her a gutsy lady because she's tough."

Caught up in the whirlwind of the first few days in office, Collier says she needs some time before making blanket statements about issues before the board.

With one son enrolled in the Haycock Elementary School enrichment program, Collier has some strong opinions about the county's gifted and talented program.

"To be honest I think it's been treated as the unwanted stepchild," she said. "I would like to see that changed, I guess you could say that is one thing I bring to the board."

But Collier says her biggest task will be filling Nancy Falck's shoes.

"It's going to be hard to measure up to Nancy Falck," Collier admitted. "She was a great board member, everybody liked her. Nancy Falck is going to be hard to follow."