After weeks of polite back-and-forth, challengers in the Loudoun County School Board election have begun to criticize the incumbents in an effort to distinguish themselves in the final days of the campaign.

In public forums and in interviews, several challengers who have been endorsed by the Republican Party said they support a campaign platform that includes improving the relationship between the School Board and the Board of Supervisors, slashing construction costs on new schools and questioning longtime Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III more closely.

"Some members who are currently on the School Board are very defensive about their record over the past four years," said J. Warren Geurin, a Republican-endorsed candidate who is running unopposed in the Sterling District. "We have a strong set of challengers."

Even before the votes have been cast, Geurin has indicated that he plans to challenge incumbent Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles)--who is running unopposed with the Republican endorsement--for the board chairman's job. Several candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, said Geurin has lobbied them for support.

Geurin and other Republican-backed challengers have met at least twice to discuss political strategy and issues. Several of them said they are considering, among other budget cuts, eliminating the position of deputy superintendent, a vacancy that the board delayed filling until January 2000 as a cost-saving measure.

Geary M. Higgins, a Republican-endorsed candidate running unopposed in the Catoctin District, said that he attended one of the meetings and that it was more organizational than issue-oriented. "There are no constraints, there are no talking points," he said.

But some board members site those developments as evidence that the Republicans are playing politics with a board that is supposed to be nonpartisan.

"This is not about kids," said board member D. Kim Price-Munoz (Sterling), who is not running for reelection. "This is about political agendas and furthering one's own political career."

At a debate Monday, GOP-backed challenger Thomas E. Reed and Republican Party Chairman Tom Berezoski publicly accused Reed's opponent, incumbent Wendall T. Fisher (At Large), of a conflict of interest because he works as senior program director of the YMCA of Loudoun County in Leesburg.

The school district pays the YMCA $20,000 annually to run youth forums in middle and high schools. Fisher, who is known for his rhetorical skill, leads the forums on a range of topics, including substance abuse and self-esteem.

The Republicans charged that Fisher should not be a board member when his employer accepts money from the school district. Fisher said he would not conduct the forums if school officials--or anyone else--did not want him to.

The debate, sponsored by Parents Love a Neighborhood School (PLANS), was for candidates in the Dulles, Broad Run, Mercer, Sterling and Sugarland Run districts and the at-large candidates.

Edward L. "Lee" Ostrander, a Republican-backed candidate who is challenging incumbent Candyce P. Cassell in the Sugarland Run District, said School Board members appointed the Rural Loudoun Schools Study Committee, a citizens group, so they could avoid making long-term planning recommendations about western Loudoun schools.

"These are tough questions that the School Board didn't want to answer," Ostrander said.

In an interview after the debate, Cassell said the grass-roots group was formed so citizens would be able to voice their opinions about the future of aging campuses in the west. "We welcomed their input," she said. "We wanted to listen to the community."

Republican challengers also said that the current board is a "rubber stamp" for Hatrick, who has been running the rapidly growing school district for eight years. Vogric defended both the board and the superintendent, saying, "It is very easy to pick him as the lightning rod."

Vogric predicted that several of the challengers would soften their positions if they were elected to the board and learned more about the workings of the school district. In an interview later, Vogric was asked about Geurin's apparent plan to seek the chairmanship; he said he had not decided whether to seek the post again.

In interviews Tuesday, Geurin, Higgins and Reed said they did not intend to attack Hatrick or force sweeping changes in the school system. And they said they did not envision a School Board seat as the first step in a political career.

"I'm here for the kids," Reed said.