The clinic is a cot in one corner of the school office. The teacher's lounge is in a closet. Art classes are held in a storage room. During physical education classes, half a dozen big wheel bicycles are moved into the kitchen.

Crowded is a polite way of describing conditions at the George Mason Center, Arlington County's Public School facility for the severely mentally retarded. Staff at the center, which serves 85 retarded and handicapped persons from ages 2 to 21, more often use terms like "crammed" and "packed" to characterize the 20-year-old building on George Mason Drive shared with the county Department of Human Resources.

Last year the staff and parents of students at the center begged the Arlington School Board to find a new, more spacious home for the program.

Last week the school board did just that, by voting to move the center into the Jackson Elementary School, which will be closed to regular classes after the current school year because of declining enrollment countywide. Jackson has almost twice the space as the current center, a central location in the county and a relatively new gymnasium.

But the school board's decision also has a determined group of critics who are angry over the move.

"It is terribly inappropriate," said Bernice Munsey, who has a daughter at the center. Munsey was a member of a task force appointed by the board that recommended the center be moved to Fairlington Elementary School, which also was closed last year as a result of declining enrollment.

"Fairlington has a perfectly beautiful layout," said Munsey before last week's board meeting. "Jackson's layout is totally unacceptable. It borders on being dangerous."

Arlington's special education advisory committee also recommended in December that the center be moved to Fairlington partly because the one-story structure was more suitable than Jackson, which is on three levels separated by steep stairways.

But Jackson his its own "qualified" proponents. After visiting Jackson and Fairlington, a committee of staff members from the center told the school board that, with the proper renovations, Jackson would be preferable. The vote was nine in favor of Jackson, two for Fairlington and one abstention.

"I can see advantages and disadvantages at both locations," said school board Chairman Ann Broder last week. "There are no clear-cut answers."

Superintendent Larry Cuban recommended earlier this month that Jackson be picked over Fairlington because its central location in the county -- Fairlington is in the southwest corner of Arlington -- would require less busing of students and make the school more accessible to hospital and Human Resources staff. Cuban also noted that Fairlington would require "more intermediate and long-range maintenance costs" than Jackson.

Parents, however, accused Cuban and his staff last week of "slanting" their report in favor of Jackson. Munsey pointed out that the report omitted mention of three bathrooms currently at Fairlington and failed to show three stairways at Jackson. The report also omitted the cost of installing an elevator that would be required at Jackson.

Both O.U. Johansen and Richard Barton, the two board members who voted for Fairlington, said they considered the two schools equal and so decided to honor the strong choice of the parents.

Broder and board members Mary Margaret Whipple and Torill B. Floyd, who voted for Jackson, all cited the extra program space at that school as a major reason for choosing it over Fairlington.

"If you move the center into Fairlington, you fill it up. It leaves no room for expansion," said Broder.

"I'm concerned we would be setting up a situation similar to the one we have now," added Whipple.

At George Mason Center, the morning after the board decision, reaction was mixed. Edith Buckner, who teaches multiply handicapped students in a small room with linoleum floors, was dizzy with future possibilities.

"I need a big area, maybe triple this size, with carpeting and all that other good stuff," said Buckner. "Right now they can't do anything on the floor."

David Macedonia, the motor specialist and physical education teacher, said Jackson's gymnasium would make life easier for him and the students.

"I'd be better off here than at Fairlington," said Macedonia who has had to hold physical education classes in the hallway and has become an expert at repairing damage to low ceiling panels in the combination gym, cafeteria and assembly room.

Not all the teachers were happy with the decision. Janis Depoy, who developed the vocational program at the center, was a task force member and an advocate for Fairlington.

"Jackson has such a confusion of hallways, I'm afraid the aides here will spend all their time escorting students," said DePoy who added that she had "serious concerns" about the stairs in Jackson.

after the vote last week, Louis B. Cohen, president of the George Mason Center PTA, hinted that legal action might result. "It's not the whole war, just the battle," said Cohen.

Bernice Munsey was more direct: "I'm going to be consulting counsel to see where we go from here."