In what has become a Virginia legislative tradition, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee did everything but defeat two bills yesterday that would have ended Virginia's status as the only state that does not permit elected school boards.

Committee members expressed reluctance to act on the measures because of a class action suit challenging the ban. The suit was filed last year in U.S. District Court in Richmond. Supporters of the suit describe the ban as one of the last of a slew of southern state laws whose primary intent was to disenfranchise black residents.

"The people were wise enough to send us here. We should be wise enough to let them elect their school board members," Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), sponsor of the bills, told the committee.

Though the committee voted to hear arguments later this week, Colgan conceded after the meeting that the votes for approval were not there and that he would probably shelve the proposals until next year.

The House Privileges and Elections Committee is scheduled to hear arguments on bills favoring elected boards today. Should the Senate bills die, legislators anticipate a similar fate for those in the House.

The legislative proponents of the bills and school board members in Arlington, where support for the change has existed since the mid-1960s, said they do not believe that the law today discriminates against blacks. In fact, they said, Virginia school boards are more racially representative of the population than those in many states.

Statewide, 18 percent of board members are black, compared to 3.6 percent nationally, according to state and national school board associations.

Of Virginia's 136 local school boards, 91 are appointed by elected bodies such as county boards or city councils, and 45 are selected by commissions appointed by Circuit Court judges.

Whatever the outcome, lawyers and politicians involved in both the legal and legislative efforts said that two historically bitter state issues -- race relations and northern versus southern interests -- are likely to come under public scrutiny.

The class action suit was filed last October by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of eight blacks in primarily downstate counties. The suit contends that the system of appointing school boards is unconstitutional because its original intent and its contemporary effect have been to eliminate the political influence of black Virginians.

The suit asks the court to order all jurisdictions to come up with local plans to elect board members.

The three bills before the House Privileges and Elections Committee would give the option to citizens to elect school boards. Del. David G. Brickley (D-Prince William) introduced two bills, one that would be statewide and another that would give this option only to Arlington, Prince William and Fairfax counties.

A third bill, sponsored by Frank Medico (R-Mount Vernon), would apply only to Fairfax. The proposals require that 10 percent of a jurisdiction's residents sign a petition to put an electoral system in place.

School boards in Loudoun and Arlington have endorsed the local option plan. Fairfax and Alexandria boards have said they are content with the present system and the Prince William board has taken no stance, school officials said.

In Fairfax, one of 10 board members and 9 percent of the students are black, according to school officials. In Arlington, one of five board members and 16.4 percent of the students are black; in Alexandria, three of nine board members and 45.5 percent of the students, and in Prince William, one out of seven members and 11 percent of the students. There are no black board members in Loudoun, where 8.7 percent of the students are black.

The attorney general's office is counting on the current statistics to make its case in the lawsuit, said Bert Rohrer, press secretary for Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.

Rohrer, referring to the 1901 state constitutional convention that established the appointive system, said, "There's a historical record that indicates that 87 years ago there were some individuals who wanted to exclude blacks . . . . Since then we've got a legislative and judicial record that goes the other way. The historical record speaks for itself, but it has little relevance to the world of 1988."

Lawyers for the ACLU argue that while the number of black appointees may be adequate today, there is no guarantee of the future. Also, the blacks chosen now may not represent the interests of the black community, because there is no proof that the black community has systematic input into the selection process, the lawyers contend. Rather, they say, current black school board members are those who are acceptable to the largely white governing and legal bodies that appoint them.

Opponents of the change argue that blacks would have a harder time winning representation on elected school boards and that the school board is no place to allow politicking. They fear that the expense, pressure and publicity of campaigning will deter many qualified candidates and may attract ambitious individuals for whom education is only a secondary interest.

Virginia's law on appointed boards, said Peyton McCrary, a historian at the University of South Alabama who filed an affidavit in the suit in Richmond, is just one of many southern laws promulgated since the Civil War to exclude blacks from voting. Other methods eventually defeated in the courts included poll taxes and literacy tests.

Since 1968, Virginians have tried without success to get the General Assembly to reconsider its opposition to elected boards.

"I'm saying if it ain't broke, don't fit it," said Del. Earl V. Dickinson (D-Mineral). He said that giving only Northern Virginia jurisdictions approval to elect boards would have an effect across the state.

Staff writer Rob Howe contributed to this report.