William L. Helton, Prince William County's outgoing school superintendent, is described by his admirers as a quiet, forceful man whose progressive ideas have cured most of the school system's ills.

To his critics, Helton is a weak administrator who has been intimidated by the county's seven-member school board.

Next week, Helton joins the staff of State Superintendent S. John Davis, where he will review state and federal programs, such as special education, in local Virginia schools.

For Helton, the decision to become director of education quality means a cut in his $40,000-a-year salary -- his new salary has not been determined, although Helton says it will be about $32,000 a year -- and commuting to Richmond inreturn "for a chance to work on a statewide level."

He leaves behind 2 1/2 years work in the state's fourth largest school system, which has an enrollment of 35,000 and a budget this year of $84 million.

In reviewing his work in Prince William, Helton points to what he considers his major accomplishments:

Appointment of the first female high school principal in the county.

Appointment of the first black high school principal in the county.

Establishment of a curriculum that outlines specific courses students should complete at each grade level.

Improvement of standardized test scores.

Creation of a tougher, uniform grading system.

Establishment of employe advisory councils.

School board member Thomas O. Beane was chairman of the board for most of Helton's tenure.

"I was extremely surprised when he resigned," said Beane. "I'm sorry to see him go. It's a bad time for him to leave because that will be hard for a successor to carry on."

While Helton describes his performance as a C minus during his first year as superintendent and a B in the final 18 months, Beane said Helton "has earned an A for a tremendous job when you consider that he was asked to pull a school system together again that was not moving because of all of the controversies."

"He was the right guy at the right time," echoes Clancy McQuigg, president of the Prince William Coalitionof Parent-Teacher Groups."He was able to get everybody calmed down and get the focus back on edcucating the children. Before he came in, the place was a total zoo."

One man who has reservations about Helton is Jim O'Cain, executive director of the Prince William Education Association. Although O'Cain says he has a "high personal regard for Helton," he voiced concern about Helton's leadership.

"I think he has had good intentions," O'Cain said, "but he has not been a strong leader and has possibly been intimidated by the strong personalities of the board members."

O'Cain credits Helton with always being available to teachers and the community, and with personally handling all personnel grievances, instead of passing them on to the school board.

On the other hand, says O'Cain, "Helton's problem was that he should have been more aggressive in supporting members of his staff when they were dressed down by the board."

O'Cain is one of several observers who claim Prince William school employes suffer from a morale problem caused by poor pay and lack of support from the school administration.

Helton, who has been with the school system 14 years, succeeded Milton Snyder. Snyder's last months as superintendent were marked by an acrimonious confrontation with the school board that ended with his resignation.

When Helton became superintendent in 1977, he say he found himself in a struggle between the established interests of Prince William's western end and "newcomers" in the eastern bedroom communities of Dale City and Lake Ridge.

Because of massive growth in the early 1970s, Prince William switched approximately 65 percent of its students, primarily in the eastern end, to a year-round calendar that included split shifts at some schools. The rest of the county schools stayed on the more traditional nine-month academic calendar. t

The eastern communities adopted the year-round system as a "way of life," and the system served as a temporary solution to the counry's underbuilt school system. But Helton said he inherited a system that was "almost unmanagabel. We had to have two solutions for every problem."

Last year, in a move that brought hundreds of emotional parents to public hearings, Helton engineered a return to the traditional calendar. The return is scheduled to be complete next year.

"I would say that was his greatest challenge and it appears to be working," said school board member Beane.

Another problem, which apparently had been festering for some time, occurred n the summer of 1978 when charges of racism surfaced at Gar-field High School in Woodbridge. Helton conducted a quiet investigation of alleged problems before announcing the "situation was straightened out."

C.M. Bennett, head of the county NAACP who was an administrator in the school system for more than 20 years, gives Helton credit for quickly calming what could have become an explosive situation.

"I think the work he has done has been very laudable," Bennett said, although he added "we (the black community) certainly have not arrived."

In considering the future of the Prince William schools, Helton said one of the first priorities should be massive road improvements in the county.

"We have 300 buses on the roads every day," he said, "and the major roads are still two lanes from the western to the eastern end of the county. It is a real problem."

Helton's temporary replacement is K. Eugene Lee, an administrator under Helton and former coach who has been with the school system 24 years, who says he has no interest in being a candidate for the superintendent's opening.

The county school board has hired several outside consultants to help the school board fine a permanent replacement for Helton, said school board chairman Phyllis K. O'Toole. On Feb. 20, the board and consultants are holding a public meeting to get comments from county residents on the type of person the community would like to have as the new superintendent. The school board is accepting applications until March 17.

"We are in a good position," O'Toole said, "to attract a high-quality candidate. This is a good school system."

Although the new superintendent's contract technically would be only for the remainder of Helton's four-year term, which expires in June 1981, O'Toole said the school board already has agreed that it will commit itself to extending the incoming superintendent an additional four-year contract.