Though they aren't wearing zebra stripes or whistles around their necks, members of the Arlington School Board are in the midst of refereeing a year-long skirmish that many county teachers say pits athletics against academics. At issue is T whether a certain number of teachers should be exempted from layoff or reassignment, regardless of seniority, if they coach a sport, sponsor an extracurricular activity such as a marching band or the drama club, or perform some other essential or outstanding service for their school, such as being the only Latin or computer instructor.

Currently, teachers with the least seniority are laid off or reassigned first, and this often results in a frantic scramble to find new and qualified coaches or sponsors.

Opponents of this policy argue that it plays havoc with many extracurricular programs--especially sports--since those programs often are sponsored by younger teachers whose lower salaries make them eager for the extra stipends and who are, in some cases, in better condition for the rigors of coaching.

In Alexandria, a similar controversy is brewing as the school board prepares to lay off at least 27 teachers next month. At issue there is the interpretation of a two-year-old policy that calls for protection of teachers with "essential" academic or extracurricular expertise if they are "relatively equally qualified" in other respects with teachers who have more seniority.

R. Alan Caudill, executive director of the Education Association of Alexandria, which represents 85 percent of the system's 762 teachers, said the EAA opposes the administration's interpretation and wants layoffs and reassignments to be based on seniority alone.

"I think the intent is that if you have someone coaching and they're lower on the seniority list, they would be set aside and a more senior teacher would be laid off," Caudill said. "In this case, extracurricular activities and athletics are the tail that wags the dog."

Alexandria schools superintendent Robert W. Peebles said, however, that the policy is not aimed exclusively at protecting coaches and sponsors. The school system, he said, is "not indiscriminately protecting everyone who has a skill in those areas."

Peebles said the policy will be reviewed again next year, and added, "I don't believe it serves the school system best to have layoffs based on seniority alone. . . . We will use this very carefully and only to protect the program."

John DuVall, the schools' personnel director, estimated that only about "half a dozen" teachers, to be determined by Peebles, will be affected by the policy this year.

Over the past few years, school boards throughout Northern Virginia have heard from scores of parents and students complaining that successful coaches have been laid off. They fear that lack of coaches could cause elimination of some of the minor sports and could diminish students' chances for college athletic scholarships.

As a result, local school boards have begun adopting policies that would protect a small number of teacher-coaches and teacher-sponsors from layoffs and reassignments.

Besides Alexandria, Fairfax County and Falls Church now protect some teachers from layoffs and reassignments, regardless of seniority. But the education associations in both jurisdictions are unhappy with the policies. "We believe it should be based on seniority and that should be the bottom line," said Marilyn Rogers, president of the Fairfax Education Association.

In Arlington, the emotionally charged issue has brought teacher predictions of plummeting morale, a reduction in the quality of instruction, and subtle pressure put on teachers to coach or sponsor activities as a means of insuring their job security. They also predict the development of a "political spoils system" presided over by principals who would determine which teachers are protected. And since there are fewer coaching jobs for women, they argue, more women than men would be laid off.

Proponents of the protection concept argue that academics have not suffered in other school systems that have such policies and that very few teachers would be affected. They counter the discrimination argument by contending that the current system already discriminates against minorities and women, since they usually have the least seniority.

A special task force appointed by the school board to study the issue concluded last fall that it was "strongly opposed to allowing any staff members to be protected from the RIF (reduction in force, or layoff) process."

But the task force also recommended that principals be allowed to exempt up to three teachers at each high school and one at each intermediate school from reassignment to another school, should a surplus of teachers in a particular subject area develop at one school.

Another study group formed to look at the secondary school system also suggested that "seniority should not be the sole criterion" for determining layoffs.

Now the school system must decide what to do. The administrative staff has suggested a two-year trial period in which one of every 19 full-time teachers at each school could be exempted from layoffs or reassignments if that person is "essential to prevent the discontinuation of an academic or extracurricular program." No teacher within five years of retirement could be laid off or reassigned, and the principal would have to document the special academic or extracurricular need for any protected teacher, according to the staff recommendation.

The board is to vote on the proposal at its meeting April 1.

The plan would affect very few elementary schools, since most do not have 19 full-time teachers.

Secondary school principals, who could protect some teachers if the policy were adopted, acknowledge that both sides have strong points but say they favor a protection policy.

With 87 teachers, Washington-Lee principal William Sharbaugh could protect four or five teachers; Yorktown principal Steve Kurcis, with 64 teachers, and Wakefield principal Dennis Hill, with 74, each would be able to exempt three or four teachers; and H.B. Woodlawn principal Ray Anderson would be able to protect one of 20 teachers.

Several teachers have argued that more generous stipends would be a better way to draw more volunteers for extracurricular activities. Stipends in Arlington currently range from $569 for the assistant track coaches at intermediate schools to $2,276 for the head high school football coaches, according to Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, which represents 90 percent of the system's nearly 970 teachers. Most sponsors "do it gratis, out of the goodness of their hearts," she said.

Although it is not just the coaches who would be protected should the board adopt such a policy, most of the debate has focused on athletics rather than on other extracurricular activity sponsors or on the teacher making an outstanding or essential contribution to the school.

"Educational achievement is not measured on the playing field or the gym floor," said Cathy Eckbreth, a social studies teacher at Swanson, during a recent school board meeting. "We're professionals, not politicians, and should not be made to feel the need to lobby for our instructional positions with the school principal in order to keep these positions.

"Some may view this policy change as a way to rid our system of incompetent teachers who may be high on the seniority list. If this is true, why do we go through the annual evaluation procedure? Are the administrators reluctant to give honest evaluations in order to serve notice that a teacher is not performing satisfactorily?"

But Victor Blue, the recently retired principal of Wakefield High, disagreed in comments he made to the board.

"There is not one shred of evidence that academics suffer as a result of providing protected positions for coaches and sponsors," Blue said. "I think there is an unnecessary fear [among some teachers] of the principal placing athletics above the instructional program. I don't think such a situation exists. I think it is a scare tactic.

"We need qualified individuals to operate our programs. If we continue on the path we are and take people who are not highly qualified and put them in the position where they are supervising young people who are in contact athletics or have the opportunity to be seriously injured, there may not be enough money to pay for the liability suits, the way they're going today."