Montgomery County school superintendent Edward Andrews has emerged from the emotionally charged controversy over school closings and boundary changes as the strongest force in a dispute that has brought notoriety to the seven members of the school board and divided the county along racial, ideological, and economic lines.

The superintendent's stature was bolstered this week when a state hearing examiner took the unprecedented step of urging the state bord of education to overturn actions by the elected school board, including decisions to close Rosemary Hills Elementary School and to alter the attendance boundaries for Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

If the state board follows that advice, it would be sustaining Andrews' original recommendations to maintain racial balance while closing schools in the face of dwindling enrollments in the 94,000-pupil system.

Until his elevation two years ago--which he says he accepted reluctantly--to the $70,000 a year job as superintendent, Andrews had spent most of his two dozen years in the school system in the relative obscurity of the classroom or doing the drudge work for more visible administrators, such as his flamboyant predecessor, Charles M. Bernardo.

Although he was a prime behind-the-scenes architect of the county's integration plan that was spawned seven years ago, Andrews has avoided becoming a target in the recent arguments over racial balance in the schools. Even when the issue erupted again this week, Andrews was only an incidental part of the controversy.

In concluding that the county board ignored its own racial balance policies in reaching its decisions in several cases, state hearing examiner Mitchell J. Cooper seemed to pay Andrews the highest compliment in urging that his original proposals be restored.

"The superintendent abided by the board's stated policies," Cooper said. "The board did not."

Cooper said Andrews displayed "loyalty" to the board when the superintendent defended its overruling of his plan as "no more than a difference in judgment."

Characteristically, Andrews chose yesterday to maintain the low-profile that he has cultivated carefully throughout this and other controversies, declining, through a spokesman, to be interviewed.

In marked contrast to Bernardo, whose performance and progressive policies became the key issues in the explosive 1978 school board campaign that produced the current board majority, it is widely felt that Andrews will not be a focal point of this fall's potentially heated election debates.

As evidence of his success, Andrews continues to win the approval of most board members on both sides of the debate.

"We can discuss policy and differ, but once the board establishes policy, he certainly implements it," said board member Marian L. Greenblatt, who led the campaign to oust Bernardo and who was a leading force behind the controversial changes that Andrews opposed.

Blair G. Ewing, a dissenting member of the board who repeatedly challenged Greenblatt on racial and educational policies, described Andrews as "hard-working, well-meaning, effective in his relationship with board members, able to generate immense amounts of support within the school system.

"There is a rocky boat for all of us to ride in and he seems able to ride pretty well in that rocky boat," said Ewing.

The limited criticism Andrews receives comes largely from persons who would like him to take a stronger stand in trying to shape board policy during his four-year term, which expires in 1984.

"He really is just treading water," said one former board member, who asked not to be named. "He is one of the boys with whomever he is talking to. The question is, what are his values really like?"

J. Edward Andrews, Jr., a 46-year-old grandfather, is a registered Republican from the mountains of Western Maryland who plays jazz trumpet, drives a motorcycle, and lives on the exurban fringe in the community of Burtonsville. He is, according to Ewing, "a country slicker." Others say he is "dumb like a fox."

His career in the county school system began in 1957 at Sherwood High School, where he taught English, geography, and social studies. He rose through the ranks into the administration and, some school board observers say, learned the art of political survival under former superintendent Homer O. Elseroad.

But Andrews is more than a survivor. After a nationwide search for a replacement for Bernardo in 1979, the newly elected board turned to Andrews, who by then was acting superintendent. For months he demurred, insisting that he did not want the job. Some speculate, however, that his reluctance was part of a well-planned strategy that ultimately secured a handsome salary and retirement benefits.

"He had them coming on their knees begging for him," said Roscoe R. Nix, a former school board member and current president of the county NAACP.

"One of the main reasons the board got him was that they knew black groups had confidence in Ed Andrews and they wanted someone who would make them look good in the area of race," Nix added. "But in every instance where he has sought to bring about a rapprochement between the board and the black community and to mitigate the tensions, they have undermined him."

Nix and others say that if Andrews' original recommendations had been adopted, the problem of an undue concentration of minority and low-income students in the Silver Spring schools could have been avoided.

They point specifically to his plan for Blair, which has the highest minority percentage of any of the county's 22 high schools. Under Andrews' proposal, that percentage would have decreased from 58.6 percent to 50 percent.

The board turned aside that recommendation, however, and also voted to close Rosemary Hills, a long-standing symbol of efforts to improve integration in a school system that now has a 23 percent minority enrollment.

Overall, the school board accepted 75 percent of Andrews' recommendations. In most of those instances, racial balance was not a key issue.

In a forum last January sponsored by the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Andrews commented, "While my own recommendations were not adopted in all school closing cases, I do not believe the decisions of the board at this point in time add up to segregative actions."

He took the same cautious stance in February, testifying before the state hearing examiner. When questioned by an attorney for the school board, his testimony appeared to support the board's actions. Under cross-examination, however, his statements lent strength to the challengers, according to Cooper.

While Andrews publicly professes that the board's actions have not been discriminatory, he has reportedly been more critical in private conversations with school officials.

The ambiguity has aroused skepticism. "Behind the facade of being all-so-earnest about pursuing the good and the true, he is in fact a very canny politician seeking to survive," said a board member who asked not to be named.

Apart from his position on racial issues, there is some disagreement over his leadership on educational policies. "We have been pushing to get the test scores up and we have certainly gotten them up (under his administration)," said Greenblatt, who puts a high premium on measuring student achievement with standardized tests.

But Ewing, who questions the validity of using standardized tests in measuring the school system's success, said "major educational leadership" is lacking from Andrews.

"I'm not sure he is altogether at fault," Ewing said. "I think the board is opting itself for the most staid and dull and unimaginative posture on education that one can imagine. . . If the superintendent has any other ideas, he sure isn't telling us what they are."

Another critic of the board's educational direction finds fault with Andrews but qualifies his judgment. "I don't feel he has probably had the latitude he should have as an educator to provide the leadership needed," said Scott Rutherford, cochairman of the Coalition for Excellence and Equality in Education in Montgomery County.

"Under these rather trying conditions he's working under, he's really doing a fine job for the system," said Rutherford. "I think his credibility is still very good."

The school system's ombudsman, Tom Fess, sums up: "He is a man of great integrity and fairness and he also realizes that the board of education is an elected body. He gives it his best shot."