School officials will only say they transferred the principal -- the first black at Franconia Elementary School -- for her health.

But what teachers and parents say was really at stake was the health of education at the red-brick schoolhouse.

While it is difficult to unravel exactly what has gone on at Franconia this year, one thing is certain -- the problems focus on the principal, Fredericka Phelps, who requested the transfer earlier this month. Phelps came to Franconia this fall from nearby Hollin Hills Elementary which closed last spring.

Interviews with teachers, school officials and represenatives of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents most county teachers, indicate that soon after Phelps' arrival the Franconia faculty split into two camps -- those who supported Phelps and those who did not. According to several observers, at least 15 of the 23 members opposed Phelps' policies as principal.

Phelps's supporters say the problems occured because Phelps was a strong administrator who ran a tight ship.

Her opponents refused to talk, telling a reporter that the Fairfax Education Association had advised them not to comment on the troubles.

"This was a teachers' school before Mrs. Phelps came," said one Franconia teacher, who asked not to be identified. "The teachers ran the place. There was a lot of insubordination and the principals in the past just went along with it. Mrs. Phelps made it clear from that start that things were going to change."

FEA officials said they became aware of the situation in September after receiving calls from several faculty members.

However, school officials and FEA represenatives say no written grievances were ever filed in the matter.

Because there were no written grievances, school administrators say it is impossible to know if there is any substance to teachers' dissatisfication with Phelps.

"I don't know what's going on over there," claimed an exasperated Herman Howard, area superintendant whose reponsibilities include overseeing Franconia.

Howard said he was aware of only two complaints: one was displeasure over Phelps' requirement that teachers remain in the school building until 4 p.m., as legally required by each teacher's contract. (Several teachers say that in previous years they customarily left the building immediately after classes ended at 3:30 p.m.) The second complaint stemmed from Phelps' order that teachers not smoke in their classrooms when students were out of the room.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is just the enforcement of exsisting school rules," Howard said last week. "And I'm in favor of that."

FEA officials refuse to discuss the nature or magnitude of the complaints.

"A number of teachers there thought there rights had been violated," said Dennis Friel, a grievance specialist for the FEA who met frequently with the dissenting teachers. Friel indicated the complaints were more substantive than the two listed by Howard and contended the FEA wouldn't have been involved if the matter weren't serious.

One complaint from several teachers who supported Phelps is that the FEA talked only to one side -- teachers who opposed Phelps -- and did not attempt to consult the principal or the teachers who supported her.

"We don't necessarily contact every teacher in a school when one of them (has a complaint)," Friel said. "If they (Phelps and her supporters) had called, we would have met with them."

School board member Anthony T. Lane said he considers the FEA position unacceptable.

"I'm getting fed up with the FEA," Lane said sharply, adding that he blames the teachers' accosciation for the loss of a "really good principal."

Lane noted that Phelps, like all the teachers at Franconia, is an FEA member. He contends the FEA should not encourage principals to join the association unless it is going to give them the same support it gives teachers.

"The fact that a principal is an FEA member has never prevented the FEA from pleading as hard a case against the principal as possible," Lane says bitterly.

Friel notes that the FEA by-laws make it clear that the organization will only aid members with complaints against their superiors -- not the other way around.

Five months of tension and boiling emotions finally exploded at a PTA meeting two weeks ago. The meeting was called to clear the air and several hundred parents were present. By the end of the evening, Phelps' transfer -- ostensibly for health reasons -- was announced by Howard.

Phelps could not be reached for comment, but school officials said she is being reassigned to an office job in the school administration.

Parents who attended the meeting were critical of the dissenting teachers who refused to reveal their complaints. According to people who attended the meeting, the teachers' only public display of displeasure occured when at least 15 teachers stood up and declared they were ready to ask for transfers if Phelps was not gone by Feb. 1.

"We have done everything we can to ascertain what is going on at the school," said Bob Hargest, the beleaguered PTA president. "But no one would get specific at the meeting."

Other parents say they are furious. They believe their children are losing a good principal.

"If you have a real grievance, why not file it?" said Linda Neff, the outspoken parent of two Franconia students. "(Many people) feel this is a racial thing."

"But you can't file a grievance against a principal because she's black. So they banded together to drive her out," Neff charges. I'd love to see their supposed list of grievances."

School board member Lane says he would also like to see the list of grievances.

"If there were any true grievances why weren't they filed through the school system?" Lane asked last week.

The biggest concern of many Franconia parents is the effect the faculty bickering is having on their children.

"My son came home one day in October saying his teacher had 'grievances'" one mother recalled, laughing nervously. "Last year they had an outbreak of head lice down there and all the kids were checked (for parasites).

"He thought grievances were something like lice."