The only surprising thing about the resignation was its timing. Many of Larry Cuban's friends -- and foes -- expected the Arlington County school superintendent to leave five months ago. It was then that the Republicans, already in control of the county board, finally gained dominance over the school board.

Until last week, however, when Cuban announced that he would resign from his post in March, three-and-a-half months before his contract expires, Cuban had deflected all questions about the effect of the new political climate on his future. Education and politics, said the 46-year-old Cuban, were not a suitable match.

But the story of Cuban's seven-year tenure in Arlington makes sense only against a backdrop of county politics. He was appointed by a Democratic-backed school board majority. And he resigned before a Republican-backed school board majority could decide not to reappoint him.

"Anybody who thinks the school board in Arlington, or any county, is not a political job, is either uninformed or naive," said one Virginia state education official. "You're either elected or appointed. One way or another, you're beholden to somebody."

Cuban says he probably would have left the Arlington school system at the end of his current term regardless of which party was in power. When he was interviewed for the job in 1974, after working nine years in District of Columbia schools, Cuban remembers telling board members he would only wish to stay "seven or eight years."

But the timing of his resignation gives it the appearance of a surrender to two of his most bitter foes.

"Under the circumstances, he has survived a lot longer than I would have imagined," said Walter Frankland, the Republican-backed chairman of the Arlington County Board who entered politics in 1975 primarily to oppose Cuban. Since being elected to the county board that year, Frankland has been a persistent critic of both Cuban and the school board.

Last year, Frankland got a chance to do more than criticize. Given his first opportunity to appoint a school board member, Frankland chose O. U. Johansen, a former Arlington high school principal who was involved in a bitter dispute with Cuban.

In 1975, Cuban attempted to transfer Johansen from his position as principal of Washington-Lee High School to an administrative post. When Washington-Lee parents, led by Frankland, protested the transfer, Cuban said it was because of Johansen's age. Later, after Johansen filed an age-discrimination suit in an attempt to retain his principal's post, Cuban and other school officials testified in court that the real reason for the transfer was Johansen's alleged incompetence and inability to deal with minority faculty and students.

The school officials later withdrew those charges in a compromise with Johansen, who was allowed to remain at Washington-Lee an extra year. But Johansen, understandably, has not been one of Cuban's strong supporters.

"I would say the relationship was not as friendly as it might have been if (Cuban) hadn't made those accusations," said Johansen, who became the school board chairman earlier this year after the GOP majority on the county board made two more appointments to the five-person school board.

For the last five months, Cuban has been sitting between Frankland, whose board funds the school system, and Johansen, who is technically Cuban's boss. b

Political power struggles are nothing new to Arlington's school board. During the 1950s, Arlington was involved in a bitter fight with the state when the county sought to desegregate its schools voluntarily. As a result of that fight, the General Assembly ended Arlington's 10-year-old experiment with elected school boards; its members are appointed now.

During that same period, Arlington was singled out by a "March of Time" documentary as having an outstanding suburban educational system.

Critics complain that Arlington's reputation has plummeted. To back up that assessment, they produce results of standardized test scores.

But supporters of Arlington schools have their own test scores that show the opposite. They argue that Arlington's academic achievement is remarkable in the context of dwindling enrollment, increased minority representation among students and labor disputes.

"All you have to do is look at our test scores over the last seven years and you will see that we have done what was considered impossible. We have maintained and improved test scores while the student body has become increasingly urbanized," said school board member Ann Broder, who was on the board that appointed Cuban superintendent in 1974.

During his seven years, Cuban has been the target of parents upset over school closings and teachers angry over pay raises they considered anemic. But those problems will remain after Cuban's departure to plague the new school board and whomever they choose as superintendent.

In what was condemned as a parting shot, Cuban and the then Democratic-backed majority on the school board voted a 10.5 percent pay increase for school personnel last spring. That raise was 2 percent more than the rest of the county's 2,400 employes were granted by the county board.

"They're willing to sacrifice programs just to stick it to us," complained county board member Dorothy T. Grotos, a Republican.

While the outgoing superintendent has denied it, that kind of partisan play in the schoolyard is certainly not new.