The Prince William County School Board, in a vote highlighting a sharp division among its members, last week reaffirmed its refusal to make public the details of Superintendent Richard Johnson's contract.

The board's action means that the controversy over whether it is legal to keep Johnson's contract a secret will probably be settled in court, officials on both sides of the dispute said after the vote.

The Prince William County Education Association, a teacher organization, has sued the school system over its refusal to divulge the details of the contract, and a trial date has been set for Feb. 12.

The most recent board action was a nonbinding straw vote at the board's first meeting of the year. The poll was called by new member Donald Chendorain, who said he wanted to determine if the board's position on disclosure had changed since it approved a four-year contract for Johnson last year.

The vote ended in a 3-to-3 tie, with Chendorain joined by George Mullen and Maureen Caddigan in supporting disclosure, and Chairman Gerald Cleary, Ilona Salmon and Odis Price opposed.

Patricia Cusey, who in the past has opposed releasing the contract, declined to vote.

Schools spokeswoman Kristy Larson, and Cameron Yow, head of the teacher group, said that it is unlikely the dispute will be resolved before the issue goes to court.

Some aspects of the contract have been made public, including Johnson's $68,500 a year salary, and a buy-out plan should the controversial schools chief be fired before then.

But other details remain unknown, including the amount of money Johnson would be paid should he be fired, which Yow charged is unacceptable.

"I don't have any idea about these things, and I wouldn't have it until we actually see the document," Yow said.

The board has maintained that Johnson's contract is a personnel matter, and therefore should not be released publicly.

The board has never released details of superintendents' contracts, and this is the first time it has been challenged, Larson said.

When serving as attorney general last year, Gov. Gerald L. Baliles issued a nonbinding advisory opinion stating that, although the School Board is not required to release the contract, there is nothing in state law that prevents it from doing so.

In Fairfax County, which has the largest school system in Virginia, details of Superintendent Robert R. Spillane's contract have been made public.

"I have never understood why there is compelling reason to keep the contract secret," said Yow.

Johnson, chief of the state's third largest school system, receives a salary that ranks him 11th among Virginia superintendents, Larson said.

Including a $8,300 retirement annuity that he receives annually, his rank rises to fifth, she said.