"It's a disaster," a freebie at taxpayers' expenses, says Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity.

It's a public service, a benefit to the community, says school board member Gerald A. Fill.

The issue is vacant schools: buildings closed by the Fairfax County school system because of declining student enrollments. Now school and county officials are sparring over who should be allowed to move into the empty buildings.

County officials argue that they could save taxpayers more than $400,000 a year if the county is allowed to move some police and fire services into two of the empty buildings.

But the school board has decided to give private, nonprofit organizations priority over the county in leasing the extra schools. Qualifying organizations would be leased space at nominal rates to cover expenses the school system must pay to maintain the buidings.

"They're giving away public property," charged Herrity, "by giving space away at less than its fair market value."

"The county is grappling for straws looking to see where they're going to put all their bureaucrats," countered Fill. "If we give it [the space] to the county we only add fuel to fire the expansion of the bureaucracy."

Fill said the school system policy, adopted this spring, is designed to encourage private groups to take over some of the public services normally performed by government agencies.

"If we charged some of these agencies the commercial rates we would price them out of the market," added Fill, who for months lobbied colleagues on the school board to approve the leasing policy that was adopted in May.

Leasing costs absorb large chunks of the budget for both the county and the school system. The county spends about $2.8 million annually to lease space from private landlords for county programs, according to Herrity. The school board paid approximately $318,000 to lease from private landlords this year, according to school system records.

Since 1972, Fairfax has closed 17 county schools, with most in older neighborhoods in the eastern part of the county, where the most dramatic enrollment declines have occurred.

Seven of the empty buildings have been used to give the school administrators more space. The move to adopt the leasing policy came about partly because of some school board members' complaints that administrators were gobbling up too much space.

Now the school system is in the process of finding tenants for four vacant schools. Its first lease was signed with a private child-care program at Hollin Hall Elementary School in the Groveton-Mount Vernon area. School officials also are negotiating leases for an adult handicapped program and a senior citizens center at the school, said Alton C. Hlavin, assistant superintendent for school facilities service.

Hlavin said the leases at Hollin Hall, most of which have been priced at break-even rates, would generate about $100,000 a year in revenues for the school system.

The school system also is seeking tenants for Dunn Loring Center on Gallows Road, Lewinsville Elementary in McLean and Pine Ridge Elementary in Annandale.

County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert has asked school officials to give the county "priority consideration" in using Pine Ridge for the county police department's special operations division, some fire and rescue services and programs for extension and continuing education, which are now in several locations around the county. It also has proposed using part of the school system's Dunn Loring Center, which had been a special education center, for a juvenile court program now housed in rented office space at Tysons Corner.

The county is willing to pay for use of both schools, officials said, at rates comparable to those the school board offers community groups. If the Pine Ridge arrangement is approved, Lambert said, the county could save up to $399,000 in rent it now pays private landlords, while the Dunn Loring proposal could save the county $10,000 a year.

The school board and supervisors have appointed a joint committee to attempt to negoiate a settlement.

The county has proposed five-year leases on both buildings, which school officials say could leave them with little control over the buildings.

Although all the closed schools technically are owned by the county, school officials say they usually retain control for five to six years, in case shifting school enrollments require them to reopen some buildings to students. Once the school board decides the schools won't be needed, control reverts to the supervisors. Under Virginia law, only the county governing board, not the school board, has authority to sell schools.

Hlavin said the school staff will recommend that the school board lobby for repeal of that law in the next session of the General Assembly.