A divided Montgomery County school board has refused to overturn a school system decision denying two Asian kindergartners admission into a French immersion program because the transfer would upset the ethnic balance at their neighborhood elementary school.

But at least two Board of Education members said yesterday that the issues raised by the appeals might lead to revisions in the way the school system maintains integrated schools.

"I think we need to take a hard look at the entire policy," said board member Stephen N. Abrams, who questioned whether racial and ethnic considerations should govern admission to magnet and one-of-a-kind academic programs.

"It was a close vote," said board member Blair G. Ewing, who sought to overturn the school system's transfer decision. "To me, the {appeals} raise some important questions about our policy."

On Wednesday night, the eight-member school board tentatively voted to deny separate appeals by the parents of two Asian youngsters from Takoma Park who were denied admission to the French program at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville.

The school system bars transfers by Asians out of Takoma Park Elementary because the school's Asian population is small compared with the proportion of Asian students countywide. Only 2 percent, or 11 of 519 students, at Takoma Park last year were Asian, compared with 12 percent at schools countywide.

School officials said they would be courting legal trouble if they ignored the racial and ethnic composition of individual schools and allowed them to grow more segregated. Montgomery County was widely criticized by a team of Harvard University researchers last year for not strictly regulating the racial and ethnic makeup of schools.

"We found that segregation was increasing very, very rapidly in Montgomery County, and their policies were much too weak to deal with it effectively," said Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation.

Orfield said it's not unusual for families to feel handcuffed by such transfer controls. "There's no {school} assignment policy that allows everybody to do what they want," Orfield said. Yet he said that the county should be more lenient with children of mixed heritage.

"My feeling is that they should not be restricted at all. They are an asset for integration purposes wherever they go," Orfield said.

Superintendent Paul L. Vance said the county would not consider the children's mixed heritage because the parents originally identified them as Asian. The transfers were denied to stabilize ethnic enrollments at Takoma Park as it converted to a kindergarten-through-second-grade school, dropping the third grade.

Each of the two girls have one white parent and one parent of Asian descent. Four-year-old Eleanor Glewwe's mother, Mary Yee, is of Chinese descent; 5-year-old Hana Maruyama's father, Warren Maruyama, is of Japanese heritage.

Yee argued that the school system should consider that the families wanted to enroll their children in a school where Asians are nearly as scarce: Four percent of the 576 students at Maryvale last year were Asian.

Vance, however, told the board that nothing in the school system's policy permits " robbing Peter to pay Paul' by hurting the diversity of one school to help it at another."

Board members are scheduled to ratify their decision at a public meeting on Sept. 12. The two families said that they plan to appeal the decision to the state Board of Education.

"As a person of color myself, the last thing I want is segregated schools," Yee said. "But I believe the county has set up a system that places the heaviest burden on the smallest fraction of the school population because it ensures the least screaming. I think that's unfair."