OVE Utoft Johansen, better known to his friendsas Jo, says that, in the end, it was his desire for more fredom that prompted him to resign last week from the Arlington SchoolBoard, 21 months before his term expired.

"I think the time had come when I needed my freedom, and I think the major things I wanted to accomplish have been accomplished," said the 68-year-old Johansen, who has been an educator for 42 years, the last 20 in Arlington.

Those accomplishments, Johansen said, include the selection of a new superintendent in Arlington and presiding over the adoption of an "adequate" $58.2 million budget for the coming school year.

"This year, I gradually came to the conclusion that this would be an appropriate time to retire," Johansen said. "The County Board would have a solid (Republican) majority and would have a (Republican) majority on the school board that reflected their thinking."

Until last year, Johansen was the only Republican on the school board. But that changed with the appointment in 1980 of Republicans Claude M. Hilton and Evelyn Reid Syphax. And this spring, the appointment of another Republican, Simone J. (Sim) Pace, gave the GOP a firm majority: four of the five seats on the board.

School board members are appointed by the Arlington County Board, and last week County Board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler said the procedure for filling Johansen's unexpired term has not been decided. However, there seems to be little doubt that the Republican-dominated County Board will move to continue its GOP hold on the school board.

Johansen's appointment to the school board in 1979 reopened a controversy that began in 1975 when then-superintendent Larry Cuban and the Democratic-controlled school board attempted to transfer Johansen from his job as principal at Washington-Lee High School to an administrative post.

At the time, Cuban said the transfer was necessary because the school system was planning renovations and curriculum changes that would not be completed before Johansen, then 61, retired three years later. Johansen, who had been principal at Washington-Lee 16 years, protested the transfer and filed a law suit in federal court, alleging age discrimination.

During a court hearing, Cuban testified that Johansen was being transferred because of alleged incompetence and "insensitivity" to minorities.

Later, however, a compromise was reached, allowing Johansen to remain as principal another year and then move to the administrative post. In return, Johansen dropped his suit.

In the meantime, the attempted transfer raised a groundswell of support for Johansen among parents, students and teachers. It also became an issue in the County Board campaign of Republican Walter L. Frankland, a strong supporter of Johansen, and was seen by some observers as a factor in Frankland's election to the board that in the fall of 1975.

Four years later, when the Republicans gained control of the County Board, Frankland, a harsh critic of the school system and of Cuban, appointed Johansen to the school board, making him, in effect, Cuban's boss.

The dispute with Cuban still rankles Johansen. "What bothered me was his saying I was 'insensitive' to minorities," said Johansen, who last year was chairman of the school board. "That was an attack on my humanity and decency as a human being and it was not true at all. There were a lot of people in the black community who supported me, so I resented (Cuban's) statement.

"Who's to say who is insensitive to minorities? It's taking a holier-than-thou attitude, saying 'I'm a good man and you're a bad man.' . . . My son said to me, 'Dad, of all the things to say about you that's the most inaccurate.' "

Johansen believes that differences in educational philosophy were the real reasons for his friction with Cuban and the Democratic-controlled school board. At a time when Cuban and some school board members were pushing for a more open academic environment, Johansen says, he decided to stick with more traditional educational philosophies.

"When we had all this uproar in the '60s and '70s, I did not go along with it," he said. "I kept a firm hand. I thought it was a passing thing in American education, something that wouldn't endure. They thought schools were too traditional and too repressive.

"Schools today have begun returning to a more sensible posture as far as academic programs and discipline are concerned. But they're still suffering a little bit from some of the excesses we capitulated to in the '60s. . . . Most children need somebody to tell them what the score is."

County Board member Frankland was quick to praise Johansen's work on the board.

"He did an excellent job in the most trying of conditions," Frankland said, "being the only Republican-appointed school board member in a board dominated by ABC-Democrats and a hostile superintendent."

As of early this week, it was still undecided if Frankland, who appointed Johansen, would be allowed to name his replacement. Frankland's praise of Johansen was echoed by Detwiler and County Board Member Dorothy Grotos, all of whom said they had no successor in mind.

Johansen grew up in Minnesota, where he received bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota. With his retirement, he said, he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife Elizabeth in his home state and in Florida. Both their children, who attended Arlington schools, live elsewhere.

While he would be willing to serve the county in some unofficial capacities in the future, Johansen said, "I don't particularly relish the controversy which surrounds all public offices."