In 1969, when the District's first elected school board oversaw 150,000 students and a $101-million budget, a seat on that panel carried an annual salary of $1,200.

Thirteen years later, with 58,000 fewer students in D.C. schools and a budget that has tripled in size, 10 members of the Board of Education receive $21,740, and the board's president is paid $24,240.

The D.C. Federation of Civic Associations maintains that those salaries are too high. The federation points to comparable U.S. cities where school board members are paid nothing (Dallas) or a mere $5 a meeting (Baltimore).

The federation, a city-wide coalition of neighborhood groups, has launched a petition drive aimed at getting Congress to slash school board salaries to $7,000 a year.

"Being a member of the school board is a part-time job. It just doesn't deserve $20,000 or more," said Minnie S. Woodson, a former school board president and chairman of the federation's education committee.

"We want a return to true public service," Woodson said, "instead of the practice of using the school board to stay in office or as a stepingstone to a higher office. We want people who will work for this city's schools, not for themselves. A (smaller) stipend will ensure that."

Woodson, who was first elected to the board in 1977, retired in 1979, the year before a new law increased members' compensation from $4,000 to $17,500, a figure that has subsequently risen to the current level.

But some board members disagree with the petitioners. "A $7,000 stipend is niggling, an insult to this board and to the hard work that many of us are putting in," said Ward 3 board member Wanda Washburn. "In government, you get what you pay for."

Washburn said current salaries may be too high, but $10,000 would be more commensurate with the steady stream of hearings, committee meetings and constituent work that keeps most members busy.

"This may be a part-time job, but I put in full-time hours at it," she said. "I'd run for this job whether it was paid or not. Some of our members depend on this salary. It's all the income they have."

According to school officials and board members, at least six board members hold full- or part-time jobs in addition to their board post, while the others spend most of their time each day on board business.

"Some may run their office and their staff as a full-time job, some as a part-time thing," said the Rev. David H. Eaton, school board president and a Unitarian minister. "Each member has to decide for himself."

Eaton, who earns $32,000 annually as senior minister of All Souls' Church, 16th and Harvard streets NW, said his school board salary "is not out of whack with the work I'm doing, which includes five hours of board business each day.

"Still," he added, "I will abide by the will of the people. If they want to cut the school board salary, I'll go along with that."

In August, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics certified the petition on which the civic federation is now gathering signatures to support its salary reduction effort. The petitioners need 14,671 valid signatures of registered District voters by mid-February.

If the signatures are certified by the elections panel, the petitions will be sent to Congress, which has final say over the salary cut, according to an elections board spokesman. Woodson said the federation has collected about half of the needed signatures.

"We are paying our school board the second highest salaries of any city in this country," said Woodson. "Only New York [which allows $29,000 in expenses for its school board members] is higher.

"The school board is the one place in this city," Woodson said, "where we should see people giving their time freely and willingly."