The cracks between the partitions that separate rooms at Chantilly High School are wide enough for students to pass notes to friends in the next room. In some classes, winter wind seeping in from outside forces students and teachers to wear coats. During a recent musical production, students backstage took turns pressing live wires together with their bare hands to keep the lights on, according to the president of the school's Drama Boosters.

This all occurred in a Fairfax County school that opened less than 15 years ago.

"Until my children went to school there, I had no idea that conditions like that existed in an affluent county like this," said Chantilly PTA President Elizabeth Barricks.

Chantilly offers a dramatic example of the maintenance and renovation needs facing school officials as they prepare to vote tonight on a five-year capital improvement program. Superintendent Robert R. Spillane has proposed spending $491 million to build five new schools and renovate dozens of others, a program PTA officials criticize as insufficient.

By 1993, Spillane wants top-to-bottom renovations to 18 unspecified elementary schools. The executive board of the County Council of PTAs, pointing out that 50 county elementary schools will be more than 25 years old by then, says 24 should be repaired. Spillane proposed major renovations at three intermediate schools and three high schools; the PTA group argues for six of each.

County PTA President Kevin Bell told the School Board at a public hearing last week that his group, which represents chapters at 155 of the county's 179 schools, has a "major concern" about maintenance financing in the five-year construction budget. "PTA officials feel that maintenance has been the stepchild in the past," he said.

While conceding that county school buildings are deteriorating, school officials say the buildings are in better condition than most across the nation, especially those in urban districts. "On a scale of one to 10, I would put Fairfax County on an 8.5 heading down," said Alton Hlavin, assistant superintendent in charge of facilities. He said he would rate no Fairfax school building lower than a 6.

The county's troubles are similar to those around the Capital Beltway, as renovations come due on buildings that were put up two to three decades ago, when hundreds of classrooms were built for post-World War II baby boomers. But in Fairfax, the giant repair bill is being presented just as the school system faces large costs for teacher salary increases, growing competition for tax dollars with road-building needs, and an expected drop in state aid.

Many officials agree that Fairfax's crisis is compounded by the fact that the county repeatedly postponed school maintenance in recent years to pay for more glamorous projects.

"As long as I've been on the board, we have been putting off replacing things like boilers and asphalt and carpeting," said Laura McDowall, who has been a School Board member since 1982. "Deferred maintenance is a serious problem. We seem to be doing more and more Band-Aid, stopgap type of solving problems."

Louise Archer Elementary School in Vienna, built in 1936 as the Vienna School for the Colored, is an example of the effects of postponed repairs. The building was deemed marginal to inadequate in every significant category concerning the school's structure, mechanics and electrical system by school system inspectors who visited last summer, and was rated second most in need of repair among the county's elementary schools. Garfield Elementary was rated in most need of repair; Luther Jackson, also a former all-black school, was rated as the intermediate school in most need of repair.

Louise Archer's old-fashioned charm is deceptive. The red shutters and flower boxes on its outside windows hide chipped brick. The gymnasium requires out-of-date incandescent light bulbs that sometimes go out hours after they are replaced. Pupils' colorful paintings are strategically placed on the walls to conceal cracks and stains.

Some of the decay, such as chipped tiles and worn linoleum, is not covered up. Toilets frequently overflow. The school's vital systems regularly break down.

"Most Monday mornings I come in my first job is to call the air {conditioning} man or the boiler repairman, or place buckets around the halls," said Principal Judith R. Azarra.

Many of the four dozen speakers at the School Board's public hearing last week, most of them a bused-in contingent from Chantilly High, also complained of poor conditions at their schools. The PTA representative from Centreville Elementary School displayed a plastic jug of discolored water he said illustrated his school's plumbing problems.

At West Springfield Elementary School, the heating system has required 63 repairs in a year and a half, and the roof has needed 18 repairs, the school's PTA president said.

Maintenance financing also is a hot issue in Spillane's proposed $738.9 million 1988-89 operating budget. To the dismay of the PTA and some School Board members, Spillane cited tight money in cutting more than $5.7 million in proposed spending for air conditioning, asphalt and carpeting from his budget plan. Spillane and some School Board members say they may try to persuade county supervisors, who control the education budget, to make a special appropriation for maintenance.

Spillane's proposed budget includes an increase of $604,460 in spending for facilities management, which includes maintenance and repairs, less than a third of the $2.28 million his staff requested. At public hearings this week, several speakers representing influential civic groups -- including the county PTA, Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters -- said the proposal was inadequate and urged the School Board to approve substantial increases when it votes on the budget Feb. 16.

The PTA also wants the School Board to approve a major maintenance policy that would require buildings to undergo extensive renovations after 20 or 25 years so that costly decay can be prevented.

This year, the repair staff expects to receive 91,000 work orders, up 25 percent from five years ago. The size of the staff has increased by less than 10 percent in that time, according to figures supplied by the facilities office. The office asked for an additional 76 employees next year; Spillane's budget proposes adding 10.

Educators and students say maintenance problems have hindered teaching. At Louise Archer, for example, classes often are moved from one room to another when it rains to escape leaks from the roof.

At Chantilly, school officials were so concerned about the high failure rate of ninth graders that all freshman English classes and most math classes were moved this year to temporary buildings, which are in better condition, PTA President Barricks said. "The result is a dramatic improvement in ninth-grade performance," she said.

FIVE-YEAR INFRASTRUCTURE REPLACEMENT PROGRAM*

Item.........Quantity........ Recovery....... Current .........Total .................................. Need

....... Need

....Replacement .................................... .............................. Need Carpeting.....660,000 sq. yds ...$790,000

....$1,188,000 ....$1,978,000 Roofs......13,000,000 sq. ft......400,000

.....1,600,000......2,000,000 Air Conditioning.4,117 Units ...1,700,000

.....2,400,000......4,100,000 Boilers............367 Units .....820,000

.......720,000......1,540,000 Asphalt.....2,394,000 sq. yds.....215,000

.......600,000........815,000 Fuel Storage Tanks..182 Units.........n/a

.......166,000............n/a Totals.........................$3,925,000 .....$6,674,000....$10,433,000

* Dollar figures are annual.

Backlog.

Current and Future.

Estimate based on a five-year recovery program.

Includes chillers, towers, roof-top, wall, window and heat pump units. Total estimated tonnage, 33,000.

Estimate based on a six-year recovery program.

State statute, Title 36, requires testing and replacement if leaking. Recovery need not be available until test results are completed.

SOURCE: Fairfax County schools.