The race for an Arlington school board seat being vacated in July appears to be over before the starting gun has even been fired, again generating complaints about political appointments to the board.

The laurel wreath has all but officially gone to Simone (Sim) J. Pace, vice president for systems development at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Washington, who is a champion of the back-to-basics philosophy in education.

It is a theme Pace emphasized rigorously during his unsuccessful County Board campaign last fall, when he ran as an independent with Republican backing. Pace filed for another school board vacancy last spring, but was persuaded by GOP members on the County Board to enter that race instead.

Today, Pace is the first choice of County Board member Walter L. Frankland to succeed Ann C. Broder, whose term expires this year. Broder has served two terms on the board.

"(Pace) impresses me as an articulate individual who can make decisions on his feet," said Frankland, who added, "We pick individuals we think will contribute enough to the school system to get it going in the direction we want to go in."

Stephen H. Detwiler, board chairman, and member Dorothy Grotos, also Republicans, said they expect to concur in the decision to name Pace.

Generally, new board members have been named in May, although they do not take office until July 1. This year, however, the appointment is expected in February to allow the new member to confer with other school board members in naming a successor to Superintendent Larry Cuban, who is resigning effective March 1.

Pace, 38, already has been named to a special citizens panel that will advise the school board on the selection of a new superintendent.

The deadline for applications for the school board post is Sunday. But with Pace's appointment widely considered a fait accompli, the number of applicants has dropped drastically from the 26 who applied last year.

Late last week there were five applicants, including Pace, but David E. Poisson withdrew after saying he was fed up with the process.Poisson is a lawyer and assistant director of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education Inc.

"It's not worth running for . . .," Poisson said. "These decisions are made with a wink and a handshake in the back room. Nobody is really a viable candidate except for those (the County Board has) decided on prior to the (announcement) meeting."

"It's a political game and no one can really get away from that," said Karen Rosenbaum, another applicant, who has been active on several school board committees. "In some sense (running this year) is a waste of time . . . but the process needs to continue even if it's just a formality."

The other candidates are Dillard C. Laughlin, a lawyer, and C. Eugene Hubbard, an operations research analyst for Air Force intelligence. Neither believes there is a real contest for the seat, but each wants to participate in the system and gain more exposure for future consideration. Like the others, except Poisson, they plan to attend a candidates' forum at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at Washington-Lee High School.

Frankland contends that it is well worth the other candidates' time to place their names before the County Board. "You never know when another school board member is going to get sick or resign," he said, "so we should get to know these other people."

Detwiler and Grotos agree. Grotos adds that she sympathizes with the frustrations inherent in a political appointment system.

"We need an elected school board, but I don't know when Virginia is going to catch up with the rest of the world," Grotos said.

Last week, the Virginia General Assembly killed another request for elected school boards.

In Pace, the school board will have another advocate of the back-to-basics approach, one that stresses teacher-led classes and "closed" classrooms.

Pace and his wife Mary, a former teacher, have three sons, including one who attends a private school. Their son transferred, Pace says, after he was unable to enroll at the "traditional" Page School because of the long waiting list of applicants.

"A class with four or five students sitting around tables is conducive to social interaction, but not for education," Pace maintains. "I'm opposed to the open schools, open classrooms. . . Page is a step in the right direction. Other schools would do well to emulate it. And I would really very much like to see the Page project expanded."

Pace said he does not expect much criticism for moving his son to a private school, noting that he still has two children in public schools. "Look at the tremendous (educational) approaches I'll be accustomed to with the three schools," he says.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a master's degree in business and engineering, Pace said he expects his professional background in financial management to be a plus on the school board.

"I think the school board should try and operate under the (spending) guidelines provided by the County Board," he says. "But it's also incumbent upon the school board to present to the County Board the ramifications of (the guidelines). Once the results are known, you might have some ammunition for requesting additional funds."