School board members have come and gone, as have superintendents, union leaders and civic activists. But for 25 years, one person has been a constant in the leadership of the Prince George's County's public school system -- Paul M. Nussbaum.

Nussbaum has served as school board attorney under oral contract since 1959, when he took the assignment for the princely sum of $500 a year. Over the last five years, he and members of his firm earned $1.5 million from that account -- $347,994 last year alone, including reimbursements for court costs.

Besides a good living, longevity has brought something more: a reputation for influence with the school board that is probably unique in the Washington area. Throughout the 1970s, he was so well known that a Washington Star crossword puzzle once included him as a line -- "PG lawyer" -- though administrators who resented his perceived power had another name for him. It was "Pope Paul."

Nussbaum's long tenure is particularly striking considering the highly political nature of legal work in Prince George's County, where lawyers' fortunes rise and fall with each new administration. His success is a testament to the acumen of a man who refers to himself as a simple "country lawyer." He is sometimes referred to as the county's 10th school board member.

"You're dealing with the historical fact that the guy grew up with the system," said school board member Angelo Castelli. "He's got 25 years of experience with the Maryland education system and the Prince George's Board of Education. It was a small rural system when he came . At the time, Paul Nussbaum handled everything from purchasing land for building to contracting schools and everything else that came before the education board."

"Does he influence my opinion?" said Castelli, himself a lawyer, "Yes, because he has the legal knowledge."

The key to the reputation dates to the early 1970s when, under the direction of a sharply divided school board, he fought a school desegregation suit brought by the parents of eight black schoolchildren all the way to the Supreme Court.

Ironically, Nussbaum earlier had warned the board that it ought to do something to integrate several schools he believed were illegally segregated, but a divided board rejected the advice, directing Nussbaum instead to fight all suits aimed at forcing integration of the system.

When he lost the suit, as he now says he knew he would, he became the chief adviser on integration, playing the key role in one of the most controversial issues ever to face the board.

Nussbaum became the final arbiter of all decisions related to the massive busing plan ordered by U.S. District Judge Frank Kaufman as a remedy. The scope of his involvement extended to almost everything -- student transfers, teacher assignments, school closings, personnel -- for the simple reason that he knew more about the busing plan than anyone else.

All this is a long way from researching titles and presiding over the county's Young Democrats group, which is what Nussbaum did until 1959 when the late Lansdale G. Sasscer, former congressman and political boss, took a liking to him and offered him the job as board attorney.

His firm, Reichert, Nussbaum and Brown, now houses 11 lawyers in an office tower in Greenbelt, four of whom do education work. Over the years it has expanded in response to increasingly complex issues faced by the school board.

"We were there when the problem was minute and we were there as the problems grew larger . . . " Nussbaum said. "We had time to read, to learn to study before it overwhelmed us."

At various points in his career, Nussbuam has been hailed and derided for alleged liberal or conservative views on racial and other issues, though he discourages discussion of his views on desegregation and other policies as inappropriate.

In 1982, the school board was sued again by the parents of several black schoolchildren. This time, Kaufman ruled in favor of the board on four out of five counts, though he found that "vestiges of segregation" remain in the system.

More recently, Nussbaum or his proteges have steered the board through a massive teacher layoff and the implementation of a strict, controversial disciplinary code. Both issues were challenged in court; both times the board prevailed.

Teachers union president Paul Pinsky maintains that Nussbaum has accumulated power beyond what is appropriate for a school lawyer, and the tone he sets is an unnecessarily contentious one.

"When you get into the inner sanctum of policymaking, you've got the administration. . . . You've got the school board," Pinsky said.

"And the third part of the triumvirate, legal counsel, is Nussbaum. Over the years he's been an important part of the policymaking."

Whether the reputation is valid or not, concerns about it have spread to other jurisdictions, notably Montgomery County, where school officials say privately that the school board's decision to employ as many as eight different firms was designed to prevent any one from having the same influence as Nussbaum.

His role in policy, Nussbaum himself insists, is nonexistent.

As for the charge that he is contentious, he replies: "Yes, ma'am, because I will not lie down and cry uncle when a union president threatens me with all kinds of horrible things if I don't play his game."