Jeffrey Tarbert got interested in education more or less by accident.

During the fall of 1970, he took graduate courses in education at George Washington University, while trying to decide whether to register for another semester of law school. After classes in higher education administration, human development and public administration, he decided to try for a master's in Higher Education Administration instead of pursuing a law degree.

By 1976, he had earned a doctorate in the field and was doing some night-time teaching in the graduate education department at George Washington.

On Oct. 1, his 38th birthday, Tarbert will take his place among the six other members of the Falls Church School Board.

Earlier this month, the Falls Church City Council appointed Tarbert and two incumbents, Stephen Spector and Robert Turner, to the three vacant postions on the board. The terms last three years.

Since 1976, Tarbert has worked for the American Public Power Association, a trade association in the District that represents about 1,700 local-government-owned electric utilities around the country.

In his current position as director of education and management services, one of his main responsibilities is to meet with members of local governing bodies and utility boards and give them orientation programs on what they should know to run and set policy for utilities.

Tarbert, who has been a Northern Virginia resident since 1970, has lived in Falls Church for the past two years. Ever since his move to the two-square-mile city, he said, he has been impressed with its schools, government and atmosphere.

"It's one neat place," he said. "It feels like a community."

In the summer of 1984, he met with City Council members to find out how he could best serve the city.

Last fall, he was appointed by the City Council to the Northern Virginia Private Industry Council, a regional board that oversees job training in Northern Virginia.

"I liked the thoroughness and responsibility with which he took on the task," said Mayor Carol DeLong, who heads the City Council. "He wrote a very full explanation of how it [the industry] worked."

City Council member J. Roger Wollenberg said he feels the same way. "I was impressed with Mr. Tarbert and his concern and intelligence and interest in civic participation."

Tarbert said he decided this summer to seek appointment to the school board. "Schools are sort of the life-blood of a community," he said. "You need an efficient, dedicated and knowledgeable School Board."

Tarbert said he believes the schools in Falls Church are excellent and the school system is characterized by a "spirit of openness."

"There seems to be open communication between board members, teachers, administrators and parents," he said. "From what I can tell the City Council is very positive and supportive of the schools."

As a new board member, Tarbert said he is prepared to "learn all I can" and "be as effective as I can" regarding current issues.

Issues he said he knows he will face include whether teacher salaries should be increased; whether George Mason Junior-Senior High School should be moved; how to ensure a safe and conducive learning environment at that school with the widening of Haycock Road, how to handle student underachievers and how best to renovate Mount Daniel School.

Tarbert, who is divorced, has two children, 15-year-old Chris, a sophomore at George Mason, and 8-year-old Sara, a third-grader at Beech Tree Elementary School in Fairfax County.

Tarbert, who has run the Marine Corps Marathon twice, describes himself as a former exercise fanatic. These days, he tends to skip business lunches, throw on running shoes and do an easy three or four miles. "Exercise clears your head."

As for philosophy on education, Tarbert believes schools should not be overly restrictive. "Learning is by nature an opening process . . . . You can't have a School Board saying, 'you can have an education but you can't read Catcher in the Rye.'

"If you restrict or regulate or limit what students learn, you're not doing them a service," he said. "You're not preparing them as well for life."