Several persistent critics of Fairfax County's teacher merit pay program are taking issue with a recent schools-commissioned poll because the consultant hired to produce it was among the leading champions of the pay-for-performance system.

Two of the 59 questions asked in the $47,181 scientific survey dealt with merit pay and school officials have focused on the 71 percent approval rating it received as vindication for the system, which has been criticized by some teachers and public officials.

While they say they are not challenging the survey data, some School Board members are questioning the selection of futurist Marvin J. Cetron to oversee the survey, because he was on a 12-member commission that provided the foundation for merit pay in 1986.

"I go to church on Sunday. I wasn't paying for a sermon," the board's vice chairman, Laura I. McDowall (Annandale), said of Cetron's presentation on the survey results.

"He was really promoting particular points of view, i.e. his own."

Said member Letty A. Fleetwood (Providence): "I don't see how anyone could have served on that committee . . . and not be predisposed to a certain point of view."

Cetron said complaints about his role were a shoot-the-messenger response.

"The reason they think it's inappropriate is because they're against merit pay and they're upset that the community likes it," he said. "They're looking for a scapegoat."

McDowall, Fleetwood, the teachers union and others who have questioned Cetron's role are among the leading merit pay detractors.

Cetron's Arlington-based firm, Forecasting International Ltd., which submitted the only bid for the job, sub-contracted the actual polling of 1,033 Fairfax residents to an unrelated company, Marketing Opinion Research of Washington.

Cetron then provided analysis of the raw data, concluding in his report that teacher complaints of unfairness and morale problems "seem to carry little weight with the public."

He further noted that "in Fairfax County, performance evaluations are about as good as they can be.

"The fair-to-middling majority {of teachers} find that the dangers of evaluation outweigh any potential rewards," he wrote.

"In Fairfax County, there is little objective reason for their fears and little substance to the complaints . . . . "

School officials, who said they did not realize Cetron was president of Forecasting International when they received the bid, nonetheless defended the survey as valid because the actual polling was conducted by the other firm.

"Since he didn't deal with the data or the numbers, it doesn't muddy the water," said Assistant Superintendent Dolores Bohen, who oversaw the survey.

Superintendent Robert R. Spillane said it was "absolutely not" a conflict to award the contract to a member of the merit pay commission.

"It's more of a conflict, I would think, that he lives in the county and his wife is a teacher," he said.

The board's senior member, Anthony T. Lane (Lee), expressed astonishment that anyone could quarrel with a generally rosy survey that found an overall 84 percent approval rating for Fairfax schools.

"I'm just amazed that we're questioning it," he said.

"I mean, we should be out there waving the flag. Any other school system in the country would love a survey like this."