Richard W. Johnson, 42, superintendent of the fourth largest school system in the state in the fastest growing county in the nation, believes rules were made to be obeyed--no matter what the mitigating circumstances.

Two Prince William County teachers found that out recently when they took their wrestling teams to a state tournament in Spotsylvania County on a day classes were canceled in Prince William because of snow, an act that flew in the face of a School Board policy prohibiting extracurricular activities on snow days.

Johnson promptly ordered the students not to participate in the tournaments, but they did after parents obtained a court injunction allowing them to compete. Later, Johnson notified the teachers he would not recommend renewal of their contracts for next year, even though one has been named Prince William's American history teacher of the year.

Opponents of Johnson, who declines to discuss the incident, say his handling of the incident is typical of the tough-guy way he deals with teachers, students and parents. But others say Johnson is simply doing his job and doing it well.

In fact, depending on who is doing the talking, Johnson is liked, disliked, admired or disdained. He has been given a vote of no confidence by the county teachers association and a vote of confidence by the School Board. Parents have alternately complained about his style and praised his accomplishments.

But no matter whom you talk to, all agree Johnson is very smart, very perceptive and very tenacious.

"Sure it hurts to hear that stuff," said Johnson recently of the criticism he often receives, as he ran a hand through his overgrown crew cut. "But I still believe I've made the right decisions at the direction of the board, and I plan to stick by them."

"People who don't get their way like to jump on him with both feet," said Joseph P. Catalino, president of the county Chamber of Commerce. "Richard is doing what is best for the schools, and it's not his job to hold hands or do a song and dance routine with every parent or teacher in the county."

Johnson, who earns $57,770 a year as chief of the 36,000-student system, did not exactly come into the job with a 100 percent backing of the School Board. When he was hired in 1980--the fifth superintendent in seven years--it was by a 4-to-3 vote.

But there was much that was in his favor. A Prince William school system administrator, he was the only in-house candidate. He was also a native Northern Virginian, born and raised in adjacent Fauquier County where, as a child, he used to hunt and fish almost every day.

He still does both, although less frequently, periodically escaping to a cabin in eastern Virginia to relax. His office is a reminder of his outdoorsman bent: A mounted bear head is above his desk (he shot it in Maine several years ago), and the mounted head of a white-tailed deer and two bass hang over the office couch.

"There's no doubt in anyone's mind who's boss when Richard Johnson is around," said Tyler Elementary School Principal R.E. (Sonny) Rowell. "He's a man of action and a man who's going to get things done. He'll call you and harass you until you get on the job. You've got to admire him."

When Johnson took over the superintendency of Prince William, the School Board administered the schools as well as dictated policy.

Johnson changed all that with their blessing. Within three months, he had set up an adminstrative organizational chart that associates say streamlined school system operations, making life easier for the board in the process.

"It is a brilliant setup, runs much more smoothly," said Robert Grimes, associate superintendent in charge of school services.

"He's done a hell of a job all the way around," said School Board Chairman Gerard P. Cleary, a member of the board that hired Johnson. "We know the schools are run well and he's never given us a shoddy or poorly researched recommendation. We trust him all the way. He runs the school, we set the policy. I've never regretted voting for him."

Johnson, board members say, was also able to untangle the school's financial problems, presenting trimmed but still operable budgets to the board, which passed them on virtually untouched to the county Board of Supervisors for approval.

Because of Johnson's fiscal successes, however, some complain that he is more of a business manager than an educator.

Johnson takes umbrage at the complaint. "I am the instructional leader of this county and academic achievement has improved," Johnson said.

In the first year of Johnson's tenure, scholastic achievement scores for high school students dipped nine points in verbal to 429 and five points in math to 471. To combat that, Johnson last year developed a tough new set of high school requirements that has students taking more math, science and foreign language courses. As a result, the county now has the stiffest graduation requirements of any school system in the state.

Although most parents and teachers say they approve of many of Johnson's actions, they complain they've been left out of the decision-making process. Others, mostly in the eastern end of Prince William, which considers itself more cosmopolitan than the rest of the county, say they find what they call Johnson's good ol' boy personality unsettling.

"I think parents would like a more sophisticated superintendent, like in the neighboring systems" of Fairfax and Arlington counties, said a parent who asked not to be identified. They want "someone they can sip wine with and discuss the newest teaching methods."

Johnson conceded that he does not have the public relations polish that many superintendents do. "Maybe that's a fault," he said, "but I believe in being straightforward."

By the same token, many parents say they could accept Johnson's personality if he, in turn, would accept their eagerness to influence the system. Dozens of parents contacted for this article said they have spoken with Johnson and thought either that he was not listening or that he treated them with something akin to condescension.

Ann Millan of Nokesville remembers being part of a parent delegation that went to Johnson last year and asked him not to switch principals so frequently from school to school.

"He looked like he was patiently waiting for us to finish and leave," Millan said. A new principal was assigned to her daughter's school again this year anyway, she said. "You can't build close relationships between parent and principal the way he moves them around."

Some parents in Montclair were furious with Johnson several months ago when he recommended that 22 students be bused 20 miles from an overcrowded high school to a half-empty one. Even after the children and parents involved in the busing plan begged--some in tears--at a public hearing that the proposal be reconsidered, Johnson stood firm. The board backed him up.

"I mean, how can you say the man is understanding after that?" Judie Cook asked. "I've talked with him about that and his whole attitude seems to be: Richard knows what's best. Just be good and leave it to Richard."

Johnson denied that he does not listen to parents and teachers. "There are proper channels I would like them to go through," he said. "But a school system is only as good as the community and the teachers. I realize that.

"I've made some tough decisions. And I'll take the heat from the small groups who don't like it. I realize that is part of my job."

Teachers also have their complaints. Earlier this year, Johnson proposed a new method of teaching for high school English teachers. According to one principal who asked not to be identified, teachers were willing to accept the new method and incorporate it into their teaching styles until they discovered that Johnson wanted them to teach that method and that method only.

"We tried to tell him, all of us, that he has been stepping on people's toes," said the principal. The principal said Johnson reacted by telling them he wanted to make teachers and principals fear him.

Despite the vote of no confidence in his performance by the county teachers association last month, Johnson has no thought of resigning. And there is certainly no official pressure on him to alter his style, either.

Not only has the School Board gone on the record with a vote expressing its complete confidence in him, but its members also praise him on and off the record. His close associates express nothing but admiration for his approach, his down-home, gruff sense of humor and the atmosphere he's created in which any good idea can be debated.

For his part, Johnson said he loves the challenge of his job, although he spends long hours working away from his family (he has three children, all in the county school system) and his salary is well below the $70,000 average for superintendents in the area.

"I can see being superintendent here for many years to come," said Johnson, whose contract with the board expires in 1984. "They may not want me, but I can't think of anything finer than serving this school system for many years to come."