Amid all the memorabilia in his office -- the photographs with President Reagan and then-House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., the rows of award plaques, the crayon art -- there is a small framed maxim that Fairfax County School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane describes as one of his favorites.

"If you're not the lead dog," it says, "the scenery never changes."

"Bud" Spillane, 53, is out front these days as leader of the nation's 10th largest school system, a job that provides a platform for his ambitious ideas about national issues such as merit pay for teachers. His supporters call him a visionary who is transforming a solid but stuffy school district into an educational beacon, a man unafraid to make controversial decisions.

The same high profile that wins him accolades has a downside, however. Some critics dub him "Bud Light" and question his long-term commitment to making his program work. Some say he shows more interest in giving out-of-town speeches than in the details of running a system with 128,000 students, 14,600 employes, 184 schools and a $672 million annual operating budget. What some call toughness, others call arrogance, pointing to spats he has had with Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) and some black county residents.

Spillane, who arrived in Fairfax from the trouble-plagued Boston school system 2 1/2 years ago, has more supporters than skeptics today, especially where it counts: on the School Board. The board handed him a $10,000 raise this year, bringing his annual salary to $100,000, the highest in the Washington area. Also, he has a $10,000 annuity and a telephone-equipped 1985 Ford LTD.

Spillane's biggest achievement is his merit pay plan for teachers, the first such program in the Washington area. Even the superintendent's most stubborn opponents give him credit for selling the School Board and county supervisors on a 30 percent teacher salary increase over three years as part of the pay-for-performance program.

That plan will be on trial this week, when members of the Fairfax Education Association, the county's major teacher group, vote on a 1988-89 contract. The FEA leadership endorsed the pact, but President Mimi Dash said teacher morale is so low she is not sure members will approve it. The school system can impose merit pay without the association's approval, but one of Spillane's bragging points is that teachers are behind his plan, unlike those elsewhere in the nation.

Spillane began his career as an elementary school teacher in Storrs, Conn., but he said he always wanted to be an administrator so he could run the show. At 25 he was named the youngest principal in the state, and he went on to lead three diverse school systems and become a deputy education commissioner in New York state before going to Boston. Married for 30 years, he and his wife Geraldine have four children, two grown and two at Oakton High School.

He said he came to Fairfax County because the job of running a smoothly functioning school system allows him to implement nationally noticed education reforms without constantly getting tangled in daily crises.

In an interview shortly after he arrived, he compared Boston to war-torn Beirut. In Fairfax, on the other hand, "I expect what we do here over the next five years to be a model for reform in school systems around the nation," he said.

One of those intended reforms is promoting teacher professionalism, which includes merit pay, improved teacher training and performance evaluation. He has promised school principals more freedom from the central bureaucracy in return for holding them accountable for the results, a concept known as "school-based management."

A third major theme in his repertoire is that academics is the crucial mission of the schools; to that end, he recently proposed halting behind-the-wheel driver training during school hours to give students more time for study.

For all the glamor of tackling national issues, however, the immediate problems confronting Spillane are more prosaic. The bus system needs overhauling, crumbling schools must be shored up, buildings must be constructed to handle growth, teachers have been promised an 8.8 percent raise -- and Spillane must write a budget to pay for those needs without alienating the county Board of Supervisors, which has the final say over education spending. In addition, there always is the potential for controversy in widespread school boundary changes that Spillane's staff is to propose Thursday.

Spillane still has a national reputation that dates from his days in Boston, where many credit him with beginning the reconstruction of a school system that had hit bottom. U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who has applauded Spillane's merit pay plan, recently endorsed him for a national award and said he knows of no school superintendent more worthy.

Spillane's name is mentioned for nearly every prestigious job in education, most recently the post of running New York City's schools. He routinely says he is not interested. "I've done everything I ever wanted to do careerwise," he said earlier this year.

School Board members praise his programs and, for the most part, like his forthright style, which serves to take the heat off them on some controversial issues. "We knew that he was going to be a colorful superintendent," said board member Joy Korologos, "and he hasn't disappointed us in that."

Community groups also endorse his ideas, although not without reservations. Chamber of Commerce members like the idea of merit pay, although some warn that too many teachers could win bonuses and break the bank. The president of the county Council of PTAs, Kevin Bell, although concerned about continuing problems with buses and building maintenance, said he approves of Spillane's actions.

But the superintendent has his detractors. "Instead of flashy national issues, I'd like to see him grapple with some issues in Fairfax County like minority achievement and transportation," said Christopher J. Spanos, a county PTA officer and president of the Sandburg Intermediate School PTA.

Dash said she likes and trusts Spillane but hears otherwise from her union members. "They feel that he won't be here very long and that he doesn't care what happens to us," she said. "They have a real sense that he's not one of us, that he's out there to make a name for himself."

Spillane is acutely aware of the perception, and he disputes it. "Of course, I do a lot of speeches, but they're all in town," he said. "I don't like that image, as if I'm always gone."

On the other hand, he is not shy about taking credit for the results of his travels. "Up in Boston and in the Northeast, they don't think it's Fairfield County anymore . . . . They know it's not a southern little rural hamlet. They know what it's all about. And if that has helped, that's fine," Spillane said.

For the year that ended June 30, Spillane was out of town for 26 weekdays -- about five weeks' worth -- attending various conferences and board meetings, according to information released by his office. In addition, he took 10 vacation days of the 26 for which he was eligible. During the same period, he attended about five dozen meetings around the area that were not sponsored by the school system, such as civic group dinners and education conferences.

Spillane has bet his political capital on the success of merit pay in persuading high-quality teachers to stay in the classroom and ineffective ones to shape up or ship out. If it fails, "I'm dead, I'm gone," he said in a recent interview, emphasizing that he believes that his plan will work because schools cannot continue to pay the same salary to good and poor teachers alike.

However, results of the multimillion-dollar plan will not be known for several years, and in the meantime, Spillane must navigate a course between nervous teachers and budget-conscious county supervisors.

Just how tough that might be was illustrated recently when Spillane stood behind a lectern at Fairfax High School to take questions at the monthly meeting of elected teacher representatives from each school in the county.

With his pocket handkerchiefs, dapper suits and lean build, Spillane cuts a figure quite different from that of the stereotypical county bureaucrat, and he is a polished speaker who dots his remarks with self-deprecating humor. But there was little lighthearted to say when the superintendent opened the floor to questions from the 120 teachers facing him in rows of blue plastic chairs.

The first teacher to speak criticized a skills training class offered as part of the pay-for-performance plan. The second asked about the mechanics of a new evaluation system being installed as the basis for setting merit pay.

For half an hour, the complaints rained down: The evaluation process takes too much time; teachers are teaching by rote because they think it will win them high ratings; teachers are "going to every parade" trying to win community service points to boost their ratings. The tone of the meeting was skeptical but not angry, and Spillane promised to check into the grievances.

"I'm hearing there a level of frustration, level of anxiety out there," he told the teachers. Then he launched into what has become a standard pep talk: The evaluation process may be hurting morale now, but it is a necessary tradeoff for the increases in salary and in public respect. "All of us could use improvement," he reminded them.

The current angst, he says, can be compared with that of a patient undergoing an operation: There will be pain for a while, but the results will be improved health.

The next day, Spillane did a little research of his own about the progress of his program during visits to two elementary schools. Principal David Meadows of Marshall Road Elementary School offered a more upbeat view, saying he had already completed his first round of classroom visits to evaluate teachers.

"How's the anxiety level?" Spillane asked.

"Not too bad," Meadows replied.

The school stops were shoe-horned into a working day that began at 7:30 a.m. with a business group breakfast and ended a half-hour before midnight at the close of the School Board's biweekly meeting. It included sessions with his staff and attendance at two receptions, one a Washington Post ceremony for award-winning principals.

One who seldom misses a trick, Spillane scanned the crowd at the principals' event for job candidates. At a similar reception last year, he boasted, he bagged two teachers-of-the-year from other jurisdictions.

Spillane has stopped by all but about 15 of the county's schools at least once since he arrived in 1985. His two destinations that day reflected in miniature two major demographic issues confronting the area's largest school system.

Marshall Road, less than a mile from the Vienna Metrorail station, is across the street from a planned office-residential complex that will bring more students to a district that can barely build fast enough to accommodate the ones it has. At Cunningham Park Elementary a few miles away, the signs on the office door are written in five languages, three of them Asian. One-third of the school's students are members of minority groups, the fastest-growing portion of the school population.

As a group, minority students, especially blacks and Hispanics, trail their white counterparts on achievement tests, honor class enrollment, college acceptance and participation in extracurricular activities. The county launched a program three years ago to close the gap. But results are slow, and Spillane and black leaders sometimes disagree on the best approach. Also, the superintendent angered some black activists who said he dealt cavalierly with allegations of racism last year at South Lakes High School in Reston.

"He has continually failed in the area of human relations as far as I'm concerned," said Sheila Coates, a black civic activist who is an appointed member of Spillane's community advisory committee.

But Frank Francois, a black who represents the minority community on the School Board as an appointee of county Board Chairman John F. Herrity, disagreed with Coates. "We still have a long way to go, but there is improvement," he said. Spillane, he said, "learned a lot" from South Lakes. "I really think Bud was trying to do a good job in the area, but that wasn't the way it was perceived," Francois said.

Also, race was raised as an issue when the School Board last year purchased the 11 months remaining in the one-year contract of Deputy Superintendent Herman Howard and some blacks protested the departure of a minority voice at the top. Spillane has since named a black as one of his three deputy superintendents and a black as an assistant superintendent.

There have been other problems: A month after Spillane moved into his office in the Burkholder Center in Fairfax City, a former school psychologist was arrested on sex charges involving teen-age youths. The superintendent promised better screening of school employes and has since made some changes, but state law prevents the exhaustive background checks he sought. Teachers began a work slowdown in December 1986 to protest the 4 percent raise that Spillane offered them, a bitter job action that did not end until the superintendent and the teacher association agreed on merit pay in August 1986. School bus drivers have filed suit to stop mandatory urine testing for drugs, which began this summer at Spillane's urging. The man from Massachusetts got stung Nov. 11, the day of the surprise snowstorm, when hundreds of students were stranded at their schools.

When he does get into a tiff, even Spillane's advocates concede that he has a tendency to shoot from the lip. In Boston, he once challenged a school committee member to a fistfight, and the Boston Globe dubbed him "Six-Gun Spillane" over his frequent showdowns with a federal judge supervising integration of the schools.

In Fairfax, the battle that people remember is the one with Parris. It began when the member of Congress asked the superintendent in September to help obtain state money to pay private school tuition for a handicapped Springfield youth whose parents had unsuccessfully sued the county schools over the same issue.

Spillane wrote Parris a five-page reply rejecting the request, and he ended with a paragraph calling the congressman's letter "shoddy if not sloppily conceived."

Several local Republicans apologized to Parris, and some of the School Board members were clearly discomfited, although not enough to ask Spillane to apologize. Spillane said he did "regret a little intemperateness" but said the strong tone stemmed from his anger at the insult to his staff. Also, he said he thought about "the wimp factor. Are you going to stand there and take it?"

Spillane said that he loves his job and that "from my perspective, Bud Spillane is doing what he thinks is best for this system at this time . . . . I think I'm doing reasonably well."