The White House is deciding whether to replace Jim Burnett as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board while permitting him to continue as a board member. Burnett has frequently criticized the Transportation Department over safety issues.

Burnett was recently renominated and quickly confirmed by the Senate for a second five-year term on the board. He has bipartisan support in both houses to continue as chairman, for which he must also be renominated. While the White House is deciding, Vice Chairman Patricia A. Goldman is acting chairman.

Burnett is a former Arkansas judge who was active in George Bush's 1980 presidential campaign before being tapped to head the national safety board. He has been criticized for sometimes fractious management of the board's technical specialists, but has established a strong record as a safety advocate and critic of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, both Transportation Department agencies.

Rumors in Congress and at the safety board blame White House inaction on Transportation Department opposition to Burnett. Deputy Transportation Secretary James H. Burnley IV said, "It's untrue. We're not" opposing Burnett.

Burnley was asked by the White House personnel office to interview both Burnett and John Lauber, a recently appointed board member, before their recent nominations. "When he Burnett came up for renomination to the board, we said he should be renominated," Burnley said. He said he could not recall if the White House asked a separate question about whether Burnett should return as chairman. Another new board member, Joseph Trippe Nall, was not interviewed by Burnley.

By law, the safety board is supposed to be independent of the Transportation Department.

Albert R. Brashear, deputy White House press secretary, was asked why the Transportation Department was screening safety board nominees. "It might not have been for approval, just a call for collegiality," Brashear said. He said "we are still considering" who should be chairman, but that Burnett is in the running.

Sources say that S. Kenric Lessey Jr. is a possible candidate for the board and its chairmanship. Lessey, an Air Force Reserve general and former investment banker, left Synthetic Fuels Corp. as its inspector general in April. He could not be reached for comment.

Burnett said yesterday that he has been told only that the White House "has the matter under consideration." He said, "I always knew" that board membership and the chairmanship "were separate decisions" and that he plans to remain on the board even if he is not reappointed chairman.