For Montgomery County's 102,000 students and 172 public schools, the Board of Education elections this fall may be harbingers of change.

There is only one incumbent among the 13 candidates for four school board seats. The result: The board will have at least three new members, the biggest turnover in a dozen years.

The field of candidates represents unprecedented diversity, including the first Asian and Hispanic aspirants to Montgomery's school board. The result: Three minorities could be added to a board whose seven members now all are white.

And this year's elections will finish a process, started in 1988, of carving board seats into geographic districts. The result: The school board will consist of five district seats and two at-large seats, although Montgomery voters may cast ballots in every race, regardless of where they live.

Yet despite all this newness -- and the educational changes it may portend -- attention to the 1990 school board races so far is scant.

Of the four seats up for election this year, only District 5 and the at-large race have enough candidates to warrant primaries. In each, the field will be narrowed to two for the November general election.

Compared with elections for the General Assembly, county executive and County Council, "the school board races are not . . . a hot item," said Donald R. Buckner, a District 5 candidate who has been meeting voters at churches and shopping centers. "They don't know what the issues are, and they don't care."

If the focus on the school board is blurry, one reason may be that relatively few Montgomery voters have direct contact with the school system. Two decades ago, about half the county's households had public school children; today, only one-fourth do.

The shift is evident from the campaigns. Sheldon Fishman, an at-large candidate, has held three dozen coffees so far throughout the county. The largest one, in Silver Spring, attracted 28 residents, none of whom had children in the schools, he said.

To the extent they exist, campaign issues revolve around what is, for Montgomery, an unfamiliar theme: money.

Traditionally, Montgomery has spent more on its students than nearly any other school system in the country, and residents have been willing to bear more taxes to support first-rate schools. But a new psychology of scarcity is seeping into school board elections, as a result of two sharp budget cuts during the past four years. In particular, voters and candidates talk of the County Council's decision last spring to cut raises that the school board had negotiated with teachers and other employees.

Among candidates, opinion is divided over the size and handling of the raises. But the issue is potent enough that at least one candidate, Buckner, has proposed a major change in state law that would give the school board independent budget authority.

Among residents, the concerns over money often are framed in parochial ways: whether the schools in their community receive a fair share.

At a candidates' forum last week, the last issue of the night was raised by Candy Abel, the PTA vice president at Kemp Mill Elementary, who asked for "$300 worth of cork stripping so we can hang artwork on the walls."

Of the two primary campaigns, the race for the at-large seat is the more crowded. The candidates are Alan Cheung, James Cronin, Sheldon Fishman, Abraham Kalish, Donald Krintz and Paul Kuhn. Cronin, the incumbent, and Cheung and Fishman are waging the most assertive campaigns and are believed to have the best prospects.

Cheung, 53, is a Hong Kong native who came to the United States 34 years ago and has lived in Rockville since 1977. He has three grown children and is an administrator at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he is special assistant to the assistant chief medical director for clinical affairs.

In his first attempt at elective office, he has raised more money than his competitors -- roughly $6,000. As he campaigns through the county, he said, he finds that "people are concerned about the complacency of the school system."

Cheung said his priorities include "improving the scientific literacy of all children," through more "hands-on" learning and greater collaboration with private businesses. He also said he would like essentially to reduce class sizes by enlisting retirees and other volunteers to help teachers.

In addition, Cheung said he would promote "cross-cultural education," perhaps by assembling teachers of diverse races and religions to decide what values children should learn.

Cronin, 48, of Silver Spring, has been a school board member since 1982 and its president twice, most recently last year. His two children are grown, but as a history professor at Montgomery College, he said, "I see the products of the Montgomery County public schools."

In his third campaign and as the only incumbent, Cronin is trading on his experience as a board member for eight years and as an educator for 25 years. "If we are going to have three new board members, we should continue some of the experience also," he said.

His priorities, he said, include improving education and services for young children, devoting more attention to minority students, and bolstering classes and other help for students who do not speak English.

Cronin said he also believes the school system should strengthen its middle schools to accommodate the physical, emotional and intellectual changes of young teenagers. In addition, he said, high schools and groups of teachers should focus more on what students ought to be taught in science, social studies, languages and other subjects.

Fishman, 43, of Silver Spring, is the management information chief of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Dental Research. He has four children in the school system, has held a variety of PTA offices, and is a member of a committee at Oakland Terrace Elementary School that is trying school-based management.

Fishman contends that, while many individual schools and teachers are good, the school system "has just lost some of its edge." The schools "need to improve their performance and their innovation," he said.

Fishman believes that the school system should become less bureaucratic and give more autonomy to local schools. He also said that teachers should be treated more like professionals and that principals' positions should be considered senior to those of many administrators.

Fishman cites a need for better analysis of financial, demographic and educational data and for greater accountability. "The primary purpose of schools is to teach," he said, "but somewhere along the line, they have to measure how well they are teaching and share that information." Fishman also said Montgomery should explore new sources of money, such as federal grants and selling its curriculum to smaller systems.

Kalish, 84, is a Silver Spring resident who is retired from a teaching job at the U.S. Defense Intelligence School. He has run unsuccessfully for several public offices during the past two decades, including the school board in 1968 and 1970.

He said his main concern is the use of phonics to teach reading. "We're becoming a nation of illiterates, unless we return to phonetics," he said. He also said he is against the use of computers in schools.

Kalish is advocating a plan to cut the school system's work force and raise teachers' salaries. Under his plan, school employees could volunteer to have their jobs abolished, then draw their full pay while remaining at home. With fewer workers, he reasons, the school system would save money on furniture, parking spaces and other incidentals. The savings, he said, could be used to raise teachers' salaries by 50 percent.

Krintz, 31, is a Montgomery native who lives in Germantown and has four children. A systems engineer, Krintz has a daughter at Waters Landing Elementary School, but says he would send her to private school if he could afford to. "There are a lot of parents that use the public schools out of financial necessity. I am one of them," he said.

He said he is running for the school board to try to set up a "voucher" system in Montgomery, in which parents would get county subsidies to send children to private and parochial schools. He said he believes such a program would reduce school system costs and motivate public schools to improve.

Kuhn, 24, lives outside Rockville. He said he is a libertarian, attends the University of Maryland part time and buys and resells typewriters.

He ran in a school board primary two years ago and got 10 percent of the vote. This time, he said, he has better name recognition and "a built-in constituency: the thousands and thousands of people who've been to high school recently and hated it."

He said his main concern is students' rights. "Let me tell you, the key word is 'resistance' when it comes to strict discipline," Kuhn said.