Four years ago, the first School Board election in Fairfax County's history featured heated debates about sex education and proposals to teach "creation science" as an alternative to evolution. In contrast, this year's board candidates are sticking to less volatile subjects such as school spending and student safety.

The field for the Nov. 2 election, which became final Tuesday night as the deadline for candidate filings passed, is generally more moderate than in 1995, according to county educators and parent activists. And it includes several challengers who have promised to reduce the amount of partisan sniping between Democrats and Republicans on the board.

Although school board elections in Virginia are nonpartisan, both political parties in Fairfax have endorsed candidates this year, as they did in 1995. The 12-member board in Fairfax, the Washington area's largest school system, currently consists of eight Democrats and four Republicans.

The biggest difference in this year's campaign, several educators said, is that the slate of GOP-endorsed candidates is more diverse and is not focused on promoting a conservative ideological agenda.

"I think the Republicans found last time that going to extremes just doesn't work," said John Butterfield, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the county's largest teachers union. "This is not an extremist area up here. Northern Virginia is the mixing bowl and candidates have to have broad-based appeal."

Joe Underwood, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, acknowledged that "the focus we're putting on these races is totally different than in 1995" and said voters this year will see the GOP, rather than Democrats, as the party of "mainstream candidates."

Among the GOP-endorsed challengers are Rita S. Thompson, public relations director for Fairfax Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield); Thomas A. Wilkins, a retired federal government employee and former president of the Reston Association Board; education consultant Jamie E. Ruppmann, who has worked as an advocate for disabled students; and former School Board member Rafael L. Franchi. Wilkins and Thompson are African American, and Franchi is a Latino community activist.

Two of the candidates have ties to Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). Davis, when he served on the Board of Supervisors, employed Wilkins as an aide in his office and appointed Franchi to the School Board. County residents voted to switch from an appointed to an elected board in a 1993 referendum.

Several of this year's challengers, including Ruppmann and Democrat-endorsed candidates Robert "Bob" Gardner and C.A. "Cathy" Belter, say they will try to put an end to partisan bickering on the board if they are elected.

"I'm running on my ability to reduce the partisanship that has been going on," said Gardner, an employee at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service who is seeking one of three at-large seats on the board.

At the same time, there are fewer independents running this year than in the last board election. In 1995, 34 people ran, 10 of them without the backing of either party. This year, 23 of the 25 candidates are running with the Democratic or Republican endorsement.

The parties differ so far in the themes they are emphasizing in the race, but the differences are more subtle than in the previous election. Generally, the Democrat-endorsed candidates are focusing on issues such as expanding new programs that target struggling schools and students, while Republican-backed candidates are stressing school safety, cuts in school bureaucracy and a curriculum focused on basic subjects.

Only two of the 12 current board members are not seeking reelection -- Democrats Kristen J. Amundson (Mount Vernon), who is running for a House of Delegates seat, and Alfred H. "Fred" Ward (Mason), who resigned last month for health reasons.

Educators and parent activists say the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents may be Ernestine C. Heastie, who is running against Ruppmann in the Providence district, and Stuart D. Gibson, whose opponent in the Hunter Mill district is Wilkins. Among the GOP incumbents, observers say that Carter S. Thomas will face a tough challenge from Belter, a former president of the Virginia PTA, in the Springfield district.

PTA, business and civic leaders say the current board generally has done a good job in raising academic standards for Fairfax students but too often has become embroiled in ideological debates on tangential issues.

"If there has been a failing, it's the perception that they fall out along party lines. On most issues, it seems positions have been taken before the debate even begins," said Mary Anne Lecos, director of teacher education at George Mason University and a former School Board member and school administrator in Fairfax.

Challengers will have an edge in this year's campaign, Lecos said, if they can present themselves as being "more independent in their thinking and not so quick to be part of a coalition that appears -- at least on the outside -- to be very partisan."

Fairfax School Board Election

Here is the field of candidates for the Fairfax School Board election on Nov. 2:

Braddock

X Ilryong Moon1

Judith T. "Tessie" Wilson2

Hunter Mill

X Stuart D. Gibson1

Thomas A. Wilkins2

Dranesville

X Jane K. Strauss1

I. Michael Saliba2

Lee

X Christian N. Braunlich2

Brad Center1

Mason

Douglas J. Barylski

Rafael L. Franchi2

Laura H. "Kaye" Kory1

C.W. "Levi" Levy

Mount Vernon

Sharon Baroncelli2

Isis Castro1

Providence

X Ernestine C. Heastie1

Jamie E. Ruppmann2

Springfield

X Carter S. Thomas2

C.A. "Cathy" Belter1

Sully

X Gary A. Reese2

At Large (three are elected)

X Mychele B. Brickner2

X Mark H. Emery1

X Robert E. Frye Sr.1

Robert "Bob" Gardner1

Stephen M. "Steve" Hunt2

C.W. "Levi" Levy

Rita S. Thompson2

X Incumbent

1 Endorsed by Democratic Party

2 Endorsed by Republican Party

SOURCE: Fairfax County Board of Elections