The Supreme Court refused yesterday to review claims that Virginia's system of appointed school boards illegally keeps black residents from serving on them or participating in the selection process.

The court declined to hear a challenge by black residents of Petersburg and four rural Southside counties -- Nottoway, Prince Edward, Buckingham and Halifax -- to the state's method of having school board members appointed by locally elected officials or commissions named by circuit court judges. Virginia is the only state that prohibits elected school boards, a system developed in the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War.

The plaintiffs said the system violated their constitutional right to equal protection of the laws and to vote, as well as the Voting Rights Act.

Lower courts in the case, Irby v. Virginia State Board of Elections, found that the state's constitutional convention of 1901-02, designed to restore white supremacy, decided to maintain the appointment system in order to keep black people off school boards.

The courts also found that the legislature's 1956 decision to abolish an elected school board in Arlington County, which acted under a short-lived state law, was motivated by race (the legislature acted after the board voted to desegregate Arlington's school system).

But the courts said a 1984 study listing nondiscriminatory reasons for keeping the appointment system -- such as insulating school boards from the political process -- established that the system was no longer maintained for discriminatory purposes.

The number of black members on school boards matches their percentage of the state's population -- about 18 percent. But some boards are overhwelmingly white and black people are underrepresented on others, the court was told.

In Buckingham County, for example, which has a 42 percent black population, there never has been more than one black person on the seven-member school board since 1971. There are no black members on 50 of the state's 136 local school boards.

Those challenging the system argued that the history of racial motivation should have forced the state to prove that the system would be in place even without the discriminatory motive and to show that the racial disparities are not the result of the past intentional discrimination.

"Virginia's system was intended to provide discretion in the appointment process, with the hope and expectation that this discretion would be used to bar blacks from participation," they told the court.

But the state and the local school boards said the case was "based upon the false premise that the Virginia system of appointing school boards was adopted and is currently maintained for racially discriminatory reasons."