Plans to use Fauquier County money to pay for half of a $1.5 million performing arts center on the grounds of Cedar Lee Middle School in Bealeton were linked this week to a possible school bond referendum that, in addition to the arts center, would fund renovations at the county's three other middle schools and possibly construction of a new one.

A borrowing question that could run into the millions of dollars for schools was the scenario sketched Monday by a majority of the Board of Supervisors after a group of business leaders from southern Fauquier presented their plan for the center, for which they are seeking $750,000 in county money.

The three supervisors whose districts do not funnel children into Cedar Lee--Joe Winkelmann (R-Center), James R. Green Jr. (I-Marshall) and Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott)--indicated they would not endorse using county general funds for the arts center alone but would support it as part of a broader referendum.

The School Board is looking into whether a new middle school is needed or whether it would make more sense to fund improvements at Taylor, Warrenton and Marshall middle schools, where some students are taught in trailers because of crowding.

Weeks, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said conditions at those schools should be addressed before consideration of a county performing arts center at Cedar Lee. "Until we take care of our classroom needs, I don't see supporting 'nice-to-haves,' " Weeks said at a board work session Monday.

Acknowledging those political realities, Supervisor David C. Mangum (R-Lee), whose district would benefit from the new auditorium, said, "It's critical that Marshall, Taylor and Warrenton [schools] have projects in the referendum."

A referendum question needs the approval of the School Board, the Board of Supervisors and Fauquier County Circuit Court before it can be put on the ballot. The process is costly, but the cost could be reduced if the question were included on the November 2000 general election ballot, as opposed to having a special referendum on a separate date, supervisors said.

Proponents of the 780-seat arts center in Bealeton describe cramped conditions during musical and theatrical performances at Cedar Lee, which has no auditorium. Mangum said he attended one event in the school cafeteria, which seats about 250, at which dozens of parents were forced to stand in the back.

"It was almost a joke," he said. "We need this auditorium very, very badly."

Supervisor Wilbur W. Burton (D-Cedar Run), whose district also would benefit from the new facility, argued that the high level of involvement by the southern Fauquier business community makes the center a public-private partnership worth pursuing.

Business leaders supporting the arts center say they have $495,000 in private commitments--most of it for materials, not cash. They believe the project could usher in a mini-renaissance in southern Fauquier.

"For a community to collect a half-million dollars, I think that's really something," Burton said.

The business leaders said their total contribution would increase if the county committed some money to the effort.

"We're to a point now where we need some help," said Jay Vangelder, a member of a nonprofit organization formed to build the center.

In other action Monday, supervisors approved closing Business Route 15/29 outside Remington for 45 days to allow the Virginia Department of Transportation to repair a 70-year-old bridge over the Rappahannock River.

Work is expected to begin in early spring on the $117,000 project, which will include replacing the asphalt, repairing some of the concrete piers and repaving.

An estimated 2,600 vehicles cross the bridge daily, but VDOT's resident engineer in Fauquier, Bob Moore, said closing the bridge will be less costly and time-consuming than performing the repairs in stages and keeping a lane open.