Virginia school districts will have more authority over how they spend money and teach youngsters under a proposed reorganization of the state's Department of Education that would transform it from a regulatory agency to an advisory one.

Local school officials say they are pleased at the prospect of less direction from Richmond.

Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr., Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, announced Wednesday that he intends to revamp the Department of Education, eliminating 60 of its 325 jobs, trimming its bureaucracy and removing some statewide education requirements. The overhaul was unanimously approved by the State Board of Education.

Local school officials have long complained that state officials have loaded their districts with regulations without financing them fully.

The Department of Education regulates a variety of school matters from classroom size and the size of new buildings to graduation requirements, from requiring guidance counselors in elementary schools to mandating sex education programs.

"The general reaction {to Spagnolo's announcement} is favorable," said Prince William County Superintendent Edward Kelly. "But we will have to wait and see what the outcome will be . . . . We all would welcome a lessening of the mandates and a lessening of the directives."

Robert R. Spillane, superintendent of Fairfax County schools, said proposed changes could save Fairfax money and "free up some of our people to concentrate on other things rather than if they had to report on statewide issues."

Under the plan, only education programs for school-age children would remain under the auspices of the department. Others, such as adult literacy, adult education and veterans' education offerings, would be transferred to other agencies. In turn, the department would pick up programs for early childhood education.

Spagnolo's plan also would transfer research responsibilities from the department staff to universities. The move would save money and improve research, according to James Foudriat, a department spokesman.

Spagnolo said he would like to station department consultants at seven or eight universities to advise local schools and school officials.

Spagnolo has also proposed that the department's name be changed to the Center for Educational Leadership to reflect the agency's shift away from its regulatory role. The name change proposal will be presented in January to the General Assembly, whose approval would be required, Foudriat said.

"We will be looking at all regulations and mandates to determine which are essential to support quality instruction," Spagnolo said in an interview yesterday. "We took a long hard look at what we were doing and decided that the approach needed to be different . . . . We made a determination that {the department} needed to be a service-oriented, research-based entity that is committed to improving learning."

Madeline Wade, president of the Virginia Education Association, said the changes would "provide a more up-to-date style of education" by providing teachers with the latest research into "what students should learn and how they should be taught."

Suzanne Thomas, president of the State Board of Education, commended Spagnolo -- who was appointed this summer by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and began work July 1 -- for the plan, calling it "bold and imaginative." Thomas said implementation will not be easy, but will be worth the effort.

"We have long felt the need of a policy and research arm of the department and we are looking forward to having it," she said.