The D.C. Court of Appeals has upheld the election of Sandra Butler-Truesdale to the Ward 4 school board seat, ruling that her campaign for the nonpartisan post that urged voters to support her and other Democrats was not improper.

A petition to overturn the election was filed by Nathaniel Sims, who received 19 percent of the vote to Butler-Truesdale's 20 percent, and by C.B. Griffin, who finished eighth of 12 candidates with 4 percent.

Truesdale succeeds Linda Cropp, who ran successfully as a Democrat for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.

But unlike council races, school board races are by law required to be "conducted on a nonpartisan basis."

Butler-Truesdale's opponents said she violated the law when on Election Day she drove through the ward making annoucements from a loudspeaker to "Vote the straight Democratic slate: Sharon Pratt Dixon, mayor; Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate; Linda Cropp, at large; Sandra Butler-Truesdale, board of education."

Butler-Truesdale is president of the Ward 4 Democrats.

"I think that had a lot to do with her winning," Griffin said.

Addie Hargrove Butler, Ward 4 coordinator of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, said "people were confused . . . . My husband {even} said he was going in to vote the ticket."

Butler-Truesdale denied any wrongdoing and her attorney argued in court that her Election Day announcements were paraphrased.

Located at the eastern tip of Northwest Washington, Ward 4 is a community of predominantly middle-class black families. Education is a key issue, and more candidates ran for school board in Ward 4 than in any other ward this year.

It was a close race, which Sims, a program manager for the city's Public Works Department, lost by 396 votes. He attributed the loss largely to party loyal Democrats who believed Butler-Truesdale was part of the ticket.

"That's what a lot of people vote on {as well as} name recognition and . . . people weren't sure. They were confused," Sims said.

But a panel of three judges ruled last week that while existing law forbids a candidate to be an official part of a party slate, it "does not prohibit partisan campaigning."

In fact, the judges said, it is permissible for political parties to endorse school board candidates and for those candidates to use the endorsements. The judges labeled Butler-Truesdale's campaign messages a "play on words," according to court documents.

They based their decision on a 1969 case in which the court ruled that a D.C. school board candidate may circulate literature and sample ballots with political endorsements and even use party money for campaign expenses.

Butler-Truesdale, an administrator with the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., said she felt vindicated by the decision.

"What I said was 'vote the Democratic ticket' and I named all of the people who were on the Democratic ticket, and at the end of that I said: 'for the Board of Education,' I said, 'elect Sandra Butler-Truesdale.' "

Her attorney, Vere O. Plummer, called it "a case of sore losers."

But attorney James R. Haynes, who represented the others, said Butler-Truesdale took her First Amendment rights too far.

"She entered into what I believe to be a gray area," he said. "The court said it was free speech."

Others, including Cropp, blamed the dispute on the city's 1987 decision to hold school board elections in the same year as general elections. The two elections were combined for the first time in 1988.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics had argued for the change, saying it would save money and encourage more participation. But critics say the downside this year was that school board races were overshadowed by the others.

"The media tended to focus on the major candidates and never paid that much attention to the board of education election," said parent activist Valencia Mohammed, a Ward 4 resident who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large school board seat.

Cropp defended the actions of Butler-Truesdale. "People who are going to be active politically . . . are going to have candidates they are going to support," she said.

School board President Nate Bush agreed. "I think the council made an unfortunate mistake in including school board races in general elections," he said. "I think it's very difficult for people to run an independent campaign in an on-year election."