A discussion before the Alexandria School Board last night about PTA fund-raising policies quickly turned into a debate over the right of parents to pay for items the city cannot afford.

Representatives of PTAs from most of the city's elementary schools told the board they would strongly oppose any attempt to curtail their ability to raise money.

"In an ideal world, there would be no need for this discussion at all," said Barbara Cole, president of the PTA at the John Adams School. "Hiring freezes and capital budget outlay freezes put parents in an impossible position. Our childrens' needs are not frozen."

The board has proposed adopting a policy that would prohibit children from selling items door-to-door to raise PTA funds, and would prevent PTAs from offering incentives to students for selling anything to raise money.

The current budget calls for a freeze on new capital spending in the city schools, and PTAs from various schools have responded by buying everything from personal computers to air conditioners.

School Board members and administrators have argued that because of the wide range in incomes among Alexandria residents, the result of such aggressive PTA fundraising has been to create disparities in the amount different schools have to spend for basic necessities.

"This whole thing makes me very nervous," said Mary Jane Nugent, a board member. "In the past, the point of fund-raising activities was to draw the community together. I just don't think PTAs should be raising great amounts to purchase equipment."

But many of them do, and last night their members said that the big losers in any attempt to halt PTA fund raising would be the students.

"We have no playground at Charles Barrett," said Mary Reese, PTA president at that elementary school. "We want our children to have exactly what everybody else in this city gets." She added that because the minority population in the school is unusually large it has a special need for enrichment programs and increased study aids.

"There is definitely something wrong here," she said. "I do not think that 6-year-olds should be responsible for capital improvements in the school."

The board decided to defer until its next meeting on Oct. 23 any consideration of new rules that would regulate the right of PTAs to raise or spend funds on capital equipment.

"I understand the reluctance on the board," said Pamela Walkup, president of the Alexandria Education Association, which represents most of the city's teachers. "But the reality is that the money is just not in the budget. If the PTA can help out, we really are not in a position to say no."