Candidates who argued that school systems aren't spending money efficiently and have strayed from teaching children the basics made gains in Tuesday's school board elections in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

The critics of current academic and spending practices fell narrowly short of gaining a majority on any of the three boards. But their larger profile could result in sharper debates on education policy in each county, board members and education activists said.

In Fairfax, Republicans came within 66 votes of achieving a 6 to 6 split on the School Board. That was the GOP candidate's margin of defeat in the county's Mount Vernon district. But they picked up a board seat, leaving Democrats with a majority of only 7 to 5, and Republicans said the results have given momentum to their drive for a more traditional curriculum.

"I think voters validated the positions that I've taken over the last four years, calling for a stronger curriculum, more phonics and better accountability," said Fairfax School Board member Mychele B. Brickner, a Republican who was the top vote-getter among the seven candidates seeking three at-large seats on the board.

In Prince William, the new board could be split 4 to 4 on whether to allow applications for charter schools. The current board had voted 5 to 3 not to permit the independently run schools.

In Loudoun, the nine-member board will have four newcomers who campaigned for a leaner school budget. The new members said they intend to ask questions, challenge administrators and speak their minds.

"I don't think you'll see as many 9-0 votes," newcomer Geary M. Higgins said. "I think there will be a wider range of viewpoints."

School board candidates in Virginia are listed on the ballot without any party affiliation, but several candidates ran with the endorsement of the Democratic or Republican party.

Both parties in Fairfax endorsed full slates of candidates, as they did in the county's first board election in 1995. Two Democratic incumbents--Mark H. Emery (At Large) and Ilryong Moon (Braddock)--were defeated, and one Republican incumbent, Carter S. Thomas (Springfield), lost.

Democratic and Republican board members have had frequent clashes during the past four years, with Republicans questioning many of the school system's academic programs and spending priorities. In particular, the GOP bloc has wanted more use of the phonics method to teach reading in early elementary grades and a reassessment of many curriculum experiments.

Some Fairfax PTA and business leaders predicted that with the new board almost evenly divided between the two party blocs, the partisanship will be even more pronounced.

"I think the moderation we had on the School Board is gone, and I'm really concerned where we're headed," said Edward H. Bersoff, a computer company executive and former chairman of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce who has been active in education issues. "Any facade we had that this was a nonpartisan board was really stripped away . . . in this campaign."

Bersoff bemoaned the defeat of Emery, and other education activists said that the departure of Emery and Kristen J. Amundson--who left the board to run successfully for the House of Delegates--means less leadership on the panel. Amundson and Emery both had stints as board chairman, and Amundson was instrumental in recruiting Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech.

But Republican board members said Emery and Amundson dismissed the GOP bloc's concerns and stifled attempts at compromise. "I think the new board will be much more congenial," Brickner said.

Gary A. Reese (Sully), the senior Republican on the board, said GOP candidates made a point of criticizing Emery's record at this year's campaign forums. "Mr. Emery had made himself sufficiently obnoxious to us that yes, we targeted him for defeat," said Reese, who ran unopposed in Tuesday's election. "We were tired of being insulted and marginalized."

Emery yesterday did not return calls seeking comment.

Some school activists also said the board's dynamic might change next year because it will have four new members.

Democratic board Chairman Robert E. Frye Sr. (At Large), who won reelection Tuesday, said he is interested in working constructively with every member of the panel. Frye also disputed the notion that voters were calling for major change in Fairfax schools.

"I think the vote does indicate that certain issues, such as use of phonics, were of considerable importance to them," Frye said. "I don't see it as being a request for major change."

The school boards in Loudoun and Prince William have not experienced the partisan strife that has prevailed in Fairfax, and board members in the two outer counties said they did not think that would change. But they predicted more scrutiny of longstanding school policies.

In Prince William, Steve Wassenberg, who campaigned for a stronger focus on basic student skills and a vote to allow charter schools, joins three conservative-leaning incumbents on the panel. "Kindergartners should be able to do phonics and the ABCs, and if we can't do that, then we hold them back," Wassenberg said.

The four Loudoun newcomers who campaigned for a leaner school budget--including cuts in school construction costs--all ran with the GOP endorsement.

One of them, John A. Andrews II, is a residential developer. Andrews, who defeated two active parent volunteers for the seat in the populous Broad Run area, said voters looking for better financial management in the school system appreciated his experience as a business owner.

"Even though I am in the development business, I think people liked that," Andrews said.

Staff writers Christina A. Samuels and Liz Seymour contributed to this report.