Athletic directors at Fairfax County high schools, who together spend more than $1 million a year for team uniforms and sports equipment, have mostly ignored competitive bidding requirements enacted two years ago, according to a review of school district documents.

Instead of requiring suppliers to compete to offer the best product at the lowest price, most athletic directors used a system that steered a large share of the county's business to one or two sellers, interviews and records show.

One of the major dealers enjoyed a close relationship with Fairfax schools, offering discounts to coaches and athletic directors for their personal purchases, picking up the tab for monthly luncheons with them and putting at least three former athletic directors on the payroll.

The frequent absence of competitive bidding could result in Fairfax schools' paying higher prices for sporting goods, which might amount to tens of thousands of dollars a year for a district with 129,000 students, the area's largest.

In fact, records show that Fairfax schools paid substantially more for some items than Prince George's County, which uses competitive bidding for all athletic purchases. Montgomery County schools follow guidelines similar to those in Fairfax.

School system officials, who launched an internal investigation into buying practices in March, acknowledge that notices identifying planned purchases of more than $3,000 have not been posted as required and that documentation of bidding has been "sloppy." The district has begun requiring athletic directors to formally request bids from suppliers and to document bids they received for every purchase of more than $500.

"They have taken bids, but the documentation for that is a problem," said Alan Leis, a school official involved in overseeing the Fairfax investigation.

Several athletic directors said they did not follow the competitive bidding regulation because they did not know about it. Instead, they said, they bought from companies that had provided good service in the past.

"I can't ignore something I didn't know about," said one athletic director who did not want his name used for fear of reprisal. "We didn't know about it."

"Maybe we didn't go through all the proper procedures all the time, like getting the three bids . . . but we tried to deal equally with the dealers," said Tom Secules, of Chantilly High School. "We look primarily at the personal feelings of the coaches. They establish a certain rapport with certain people and as long as we were getting good products, we went with them."

Considering those personal feelings did not always result in getting the best prices for the district, however.

For example, for the same brand of football helmet, one Fairfax school paid $109.95 each while Prince George's schools -- where competitive bidding is used -- paid $92.66.

The Fairfax school system's purchasing regulation issued in April 1988 required all schools to post notices of their plans to purchase athletic equipment costing $3,000 or more -- less than the state-mandated $15,000 -- and to solicit written responses from two or more suppliers. That regulation applied to the total amount on every order form filled out by each school, Fairfax officials said.

For orders of less than $3,000, the regulation said that two or more bids must be sought, but did not say whether they must be in writing.

A review by The Washington Post of files involving more than 850 purchases totaling nearly $570,000 from the 23 high schools since the regulation went into effect showed little documentation that competitive bids had been sought.

However, a few schools, such as West Potomac, South Lakes, Thomas Jefferson and Marshall, did document attempts to compare prices.

Of 39 purchases for $3,000 or more, in eight cases some documents reflected price quotes from more than one company either in writing or in notes taken from telephone conversations.

For the majority of the purchases costing less than $3,000, there were no documents indicating any price-shopping.

After a review of purchasing practices, school district officials lowered the threshold amount to $500, held a training session in April to educate athletic directors on competitive bidding, and directed auditors to begin checking for compliance with regulations.

"We saw some potential problems developing and we alerted our people that if they were getting into any sloppy habits to get back to playing it straight," said Superintendent Robert R. Spillane.

"There was no fraud, no theft or anything like that, just sloppy bookkeeping practices."

The new guidelines were adopted at about the time a lawsuit was filed by C. Robert Brewer, president of Athletic House Inc., a sporting goods supplier in Fairfax. The suit seeks to force the school system to comply with its own bidding regulation.

Brewer, whose company once had a large share of the lucrative Fairfax sports equipment market, complained that he was virtually locked out after his star salesman, three former athletic directors and a former Fairfax baseball coach left his firm late last year to start a competing business, Metro Sports Inc. in Fairfax.

Between them, Athletic House and Metro Sports made about 40 percent of the $570,000 in sales reviewed by The Post..

The questions about purchasing practices come at a time when a taxpayer revolt has focused attention on government spending and money management in a county that prides itself on efficiency.

Money for sports team equipment and uniforms is generally raised through game ticket sales and athletic booster fund-raisers, but is administered and regulated by the local schools.

Other school districts have different systems for purchasing athletic equipment that apparently could save money for the Fairfax schools.

Prince George's County schools, for example, have a centralized bidding system. Requests are sent out annually for bids. After the prices are examined and a seller is selected, contracts are signed, the prices are kept on a computer and every school buys equipment and uniforms off that contract throughout the year.

"We find out that by going to the same firm all the time, they charge what they want to," said Milton McLeod, assistant for purchasing in Prince George's. "When you bid things out, you'd be surprised how much people sharpen their pencil."

For many football items, Prince George's schools paid less than Fairfax County. For the same brand of football jerseys, for example, one Fairfax school paid $9.75 each while Prince George's paid $7.52. For the same practice jerseys, a Fairfax school paid $10.30 each while Prince George's paid $5.60.

The lack of bidding in Fairfax came to light after Athletic House's chief salesman, Charles W. "Togie" Payne, left to form his own firm, Metro Sports, and began getting a share of the business Athletic House had come to expect.

Athletic House, which said it had expected to sell about $740,000 in sporting goods to the district under the old purchasing system with few bids, then complained that required bidding procedures were not being followed, prompting the school system investigation.

While acknowledging that he profited under a system that did not adhere to regulations, Brewer said his company was unaware that notices and written bids were required until he approached school officials earlier this year to complain.

A school official "was shocked that we had monopolized the Fairfax County schools business over the years without competitive bidding," Brewer said.

Now, he said, "we just want a fair opportunity to bid."

Athletic House had made a practice of having a $100 monthly luncheon for athletic directors at Kilroy's in Springfield and handing out "VIP cards" giving 20 percent discounts for personal purchases to favored customers, including coaches and directors, Brewer said.

In addition, Athletic House hired three former athletic directors: Robert L. Carson, a school employee for 26 years, most recently at Lake Braddock; Harry Smith, of Robinson Secondary School; and Carl E. Zaleski, of South Lakes High.

All left Athletic House around the end of last year and now work for Metro Sports.

Carson and Smith both said they believe they were hired for their expertise and experience in athletic goods, not because they were good customers of Athletic House while making purchases for their schools.

"I think {Brewer} hired me because he had respect for my knowledge and expertise in the field of athletics for all those years," Carson said.

Payne declined to comment. However, his business partner in Metro Sports, former Fairfax High School baseball coach Jim Moeller, defended the old purchasing system that operated with few bids.

"The thing athletic directors cherish most is someone that they can rely on and have confidence in, so they can deliver the goods and service," Moeller said.

One athletic director said that Brewer's son and vice president, Craig, gave him a VIP card several years ago and that he has used it for discounts on personal purchases.

"I just felt I knew Craig Brewer as a person," the athletic director said. "He did it as a courtesy to me."

Secules, of Chantilly, who attended two of the monthly luncheons given by Payne while he was still at Athletic House, said he did not consider it a conflict of interest at the time but would no longer attend.

"Looking at the regulation now, the {athletic directors} shouldn't have been partaking of his generosity," he said.