A move intended to settle a three-year-old conflict between two Northern Virginia referees' association has instead, sparked a dispute among high school principals, athletic directors, coaches and referees themselves.

Last week, Northern Virginia prinicpals, including those from high schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, voted to endorse the Commonwealth Basketball Officials Association as the preferred group for next season. For the past two seasons, the principals have endorsed the rival Capital Basketball Officials Association.

"Commonwealth was willing to unify (with Capital Association) and also to do girls' games. That's what we were looking for," said Carl Zeleski, athletic director at South Lakes High School.

Athletic directors, coaches and principals generally agree that a merger would provide the best officials from both organizations, an obvious benefit for high school basketball.

But many coaches -- and referees -- say the decision to endorse Commonwealth was not the best solution to the refereeing dispute.

The principals voted 11 to 7 to endorse Commonwealth, with two abstentions and seven absentees.

The action was in direct opposition to the prefernce of most Northern Virginia coaches, who recently voted 22-to-2 to endorse Capital.

"The Capital Association has given us good service," said one coach.

"You'll always hear complaints about individual games, calls and officials, but overall they've been good," said another coach.

The coaches are also appreciative of Capital's sponsorship of a summer basketball league, which serves as a training ground for both players and referees.

Before stating its preference for Commonwealth, a principal's committee, headed by Lee High School prinicpal William E. Jackson Jr. and West Springfield principal Raymond Volrath, studied the services offered by the two associations.

Although the committee, in a memo written by Jackson and Volrath, listed several reasons for the Commonwealth preference, including its willingness to merge with Capital, the overriding consideration to be that Commonwealth holds the charter for this area from the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (AABO).

Because of the IAABO charter, the memo stated, Commonwealth offered several advantages:

Commonwealth provides officials for boys' and girls' games.

IAABO aides in training Commonwealth officials.

Commonwealth could draw officials from throughout the Washington Metropolitan area which would provide for the "attraction of minority officials."

The two associations charge the same fees for games and each assigns two officials to every game.

Opponents of the Commonwealth decision downplay the IAABO affiliation and say that Capital was providing many of the services Commonwealth promised.

In a memo to area principals, Gordon Hill, athletic director at Mount Vernon High School, listed several factors in Capital's favor:

A rating system for officials in which coaches, athletic directors and independent observers had input.

Rules interpretations sent to coaches throughout the season to keep them aware of changes and clarifications.

A training system for officials which includes "live floor work."

A responsiveness to complaints that was described as "excellent."

Despite the endorsement that Commonwealth has received, schools can use officials from Capital or Commonwealth since both are approved by the Virginia High School League, which governs extracurricular activities in the state.

That choice, say some athletic directors, is bound to cause problems.

"I can see it now," said one athletic director. "If a school using one association loses while playing at a school that employs the other association, they'll be screaming 'homer' all over." A "homer" is an official who allegedly favors the home team.

The conflict between the two associations began three years ago when a group of highly regarded referees split from Commonwealth because of disagreements over various policies. The faction formed the nucleus for the Capital Association.

Since qualified basketball referees can hold membership in as many organizations as will accept them, many local referees waited to see which group would be endorsed for contracts and then made themselves available to that group.

The Capital Association was endorsed two years ago and again last year, but this year some principals and referees begin to question some of Capital's actions.

"The Capital Association wanted to put the Commonwealth Association completely out of business," contends Carl E. Bolter, who belonged to both organizations until he resigned from Capital this spring. "(Capital's) executive board ruled that Capital's members would be assigned to games first and then those of us with a dual membership would be assigned on an 'as available' basis.

In April, IAABO called the two associations together for a meeting at IAABO headquarters in Massachusetts.

"We all agreed that if we would dissolve both groups and form one, it would be best for basketball in this area," said Robert McNeal, president of the Commonwealth Association and principal of Randolph Elementary School in Arlington. "But after we got back down here, Capital said that wasn't their understanding of what was said in Massachusetts and they wouldn't merge."

An officier in the Capital Association, who declined to be identified, said Capital's philosophy is different from Commonwealth's: "Our goals and objectives are predicted upon what they will do for scholastic sports. The Commonwealth Association tries to do everything -- scholastic games, recreation ball, girls games. But we don't want to spread ourselves too thin.

"Our main interest was in boys basketball, but we told the prinicipals if it was their will we'd do girls, too. We want to maintain our high quality."

Joe Forte, spokesman for the Capital Association in negotiations with the principals, said, "They made the decision to go with Commonwealth and that's it. We did a good job for the last two years. Other than that, I'd rather not comment on the situation."