RICHMOND -- As longtime superintendent of the Lynchburg schools, Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr. chafed every time politicians and paper-pushers in the state capital dreamed up some expensive new educational requirement but didn't bother to fund it.

No more.

Tapped by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to take over the same Virginia Department of Education that vexed him for so long, the 47-year-old former biology teacher has set about dismantling the 450-employee, $39 million-a-year agency that has traditionally dictated how Virginia's 980,000 students are educated.

"We literally have to tear it down and build it all over again," he said in a recent interview in the office he has occupied since July 1.

His plan to restructure -- he prefers the term "reconceptualize" -- the department would transform what has traditionally been a regulatory agency into a consulting service, changing radically the relationship between local schools and the state and eliminating 60 department jobs in the process.

Virginia's reorganization, which is more sweeping than most, reflects a move among state departments of education away from watchdog roles and toward advisory ones, according to Barbara M. Gomez, of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The new department would no longer outline the details of school operation, from the square footage of classrooms and the nutrient value of cafeteria snacks to the requirement that there be guidance counselors in each elementary school. Instead, it would set more general goals, such as what students should know and when they should know it. Local school districts would decide how to meet them.

Many state mandates, while well-intentioned, are counterproductive, Spagnolo and others have long contended.

"Is an elementary guidance counselor in every situation the best way to tackle the problem?" he asked. "Maybe it is in 95 percent of the cases, maybe it is in only 5 percent of the cases. But my point is, the localities are best able to judge."

Allies and acquaintances say Spagnolo's experiences in Lynchburg are driving his moves in Richmond.

"Over the years, he's been very unhappy with the sort of hierarchical intransigency of the state Department of Education," said state Sen. Elliot S. Schewel, a Democrat from Lynchburg who has worked with and advised Spagnolo for years. "That's exactly why he's coming on so boldly."

Some of Spagnolo's ideas will need General Assembly approval, approval he acknowledges is uncertain, especially for some of the more controversial aspects of his plan. It's "the $64,000 question," he said.

So far, local superintendents and school board members across the state have reacted to Spagnolo's plans with near-unanimous glee.

"All of us have had too much of that {state regulation}, and it's refreshing that we may have less," said E. Mark Pace, superintendent of Alleghany Highlands schools in western Virginia.

"He's one of us," said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Kohann H. Whitney.

In a recent memo, Fairfax Superintendent Robert R. Spillane said Fairfax, Virginia's largest school district, could save $9.8 million a year simply by eliminating 10 cumbersome state requirements.

While fellow educators cheer, some legislators resent that Spagnolo has announced broad changes without consulting them.

"It's characteristic of a lot of the things the Wilder administration has been doing," said state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon). "Many of the things that have happened have been unilateral executive actions . . . . I don't see the General Assembly backing down on anything it has supported or required in terms of the standards-of-quality" educational regulations.

Spagnolo acknowledged that he did not meet-and-greet as much as he should have and tried to correct that with a September dinner briefing for legislators.

Last week, in response to hostile reaction from lawmakers, he backed off his proposal to change the department's name to the Center for Educational Leadership.

An amiable conversationalist, avid jogger and maniacal University of Virginia basketball fan, Spagnolo is viewed by many colleagues as more thinker than schmoozer.

"Joe is not your back-slapping, good-old-boy type," said Schewel.

Spagnolo likes to ponder "root causes" of educational woes. To solve the dropout problem, for instance, educators should consider special programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, he said. A year ago in Lynchburg, Spagnolo began a much-lauded program for preschoolers at two elementary schools that School Board Chairman William G. Long said may be expanded citywide.

Like many educators, he said, he is sometimes frustrated with the pace and priorities of school revisions. In interviews, he has questioned several changes made in the name of reform, such as adding to graduation requirements and raising the compulsory attendance age.

"Nobody ever had the courage to get off the bandwagon and say, 'Why?' " he said. "We have the same fundamental problems today as we did 10 years ago. We haven't solved them. We've had 200 or 300 reports, none of which, in my mind, have had a significant impact. We need to look at the root causes."

Born in New Jersey into an Army family, Spagnolo attended a dozen schools in 12 years. After receiving degrees from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and the University of Virginia, he spent two years teaching and then began climbing the administrative ladder in several downstate Virginia school districts.

In 1973, at the age of 30, he was hired as superintendent in Lynchburg, where the schools were considered to be floundering. Spagnolo came in and began managing with what many teachers considered an iron hand; years later, he agrees he was authoritarian at the beginning, but says he has mellowed. "I had, in my view, a difficult situation that needed change in a hurry," he recalled. "I probably solved most of my problems with a hammer."

After a moment of reflection, he noted, "Some might accuse me of doing the same thing here, but I don't think so."

By the time he left, the 9,300-student Lynchburg school district had gained stability and respect.

"He turned Lynchburg around educationally," said Albert Spencer, a fifth-grade teacher and president of the Lynchburg Education Association. "Given the chance, I think he'll do the same thing for the state."