Fairfax County School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane's public relations disaster began when he was awakened by the harsh ring of his telephone at 5 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 23.

The caller, a reporter for CBS Radio, asked about a report picked up from The Washington Post by United Press International: Spillane had "expelled" a 5-year-old kindergarten pupil with AIDS, the report said, and he had derided her mother for having filed suit to have the child reinstated.

What are you talking about, Spillane recalls asking the caller.

The reporter read Spillane the words he was said to have uttered after a news conference the day before: "This kid will be dead in a few months. What's the point of the lawyer?"

Spillane immediately understood the potential damage posed by the quote. But as he thought about his hour-long meeting with reporters the previous afternoon, he said he was certain he had never said the words. Nor had the child been "expelled." Rather, she had been sent home pending further review.

"I couldn't believe it," Spillane recalled in an interview last week. "I thought it was someone playing a joke on me." He denied the quote to the caller, then raced downstairs to get the morning Post.

There, on the front page, he found the source of the quote and of what he now describes as his subsequent public humiliation: a story with a headline: "Spillane Holds Firm on AIDS Expulsion; Fairfax School Chief Scorns Parent's Suit." A photograph of Spillane accompanying the story in the final edition was captioned with a fragment of the quote: " . . . kid will be dead in a few months."

Thus began the most trying week in Spillane's 28-year career as a school administrator. The quote, or variations of it, was picked up by newspapers, magazines and radio stations throughout the country. Editorials denounced him. Angry letters poured in. The Fairfax School Board, shaken by the hubbub, voted 8 to 0 to readmit the child 10 days later, after the county health director recommended to Spillane that she be allowed to return.

Spillane backed down from his initial claim that the report of his comment was totally erroneous. But throughout the controversy, he has steadfastly denied saying precisely what The Post said he did and insists that the reporter, D'Vera Cohn, misinterpreted the thrust of his remarks.

"I never could say, privately or publicly, what the quote printed in The Post said on the first day," Spillane said last week. "To the core of my soul I know that was false."

Cohn and Washington Post editors said they stand by the accuracy of the quote and said it was newsworthy because of Spillane's insensitive choice of words in discussing the case of a young AIDS victim. Milton Coleman, the paper's metropolitan editor, said, "I don't have any second thoughts" about the fairness or play of the story.

However, the Post acknowledges that use of the words "expulsion" and "expelled" in the story and headline to describe the child's status were inaccurate. In fact, the child had been sent home pending a final ruling. The reporter had used the word "ejected" in the story, but it was changed by an editor to "expelled."

The episode illustrates how a single quote -- an offhand remark -- can mushroom in importance and practically take on a life of its own, to the extent that a successful public figure sees his career shaken by its publication. It also illustrates the hurried world of daily journalism.

The differences in Spillane's interpretation of what he meant, and the reporter's, may seem subtle. Spillane said that in making the remark, he was venting anger with the family's lawyer for filing the suit before the School Board had reached a final decision and expressing sympathy for the child.

Cohn recalls that Spillane made the offhand remark, after the news conference, in arguing that -- in her words -- the child's life would be a happier one if the parents only settled things peacefully without going to litigation."

Two other reporters who were present said The Post's quote roughly approximated what Spillane had said, but they agreed with Spillane's characterization of the points he was making. None of the reporters tape recorded the conversation.

Leonard Downie Jr., the Post's managing editor, said last week that the paper "did a fair job" in reporting Spillane's remark. Yet he conceded that he was unsure as to what Spillane had meant in making the comment.

"I'm unsure about context and wish he {Spillane} had helped us more on context," Downie said. "I wish the first day, in hindsight, we had been more aggressive in asking him whether he understood what he was saying."

This isn't the first time Spillane has used such words in discussing the AIDS controversy. During an on-the-record luncheon with Post editors and reporters in October 1985, Spillane was asked about his recently announced policy that any student or teacher found to have the AIDS virus would be removed from the classroom.

"We won't throw youngsters out of the school in the sense that they're banished, like the Civil Liberties Union says I put an 'A' over them," he said during the taped interview. "I mean that kid's going to be dead in a year or two years. I'm not worried that much about his psyche. We ought to be more worried about his health."

Spillane, 53, the leader of the country's 10th largest system with 128,000 students and 14,600 employees, arrived in Fairfax from the troubled Boston school system 2 1/2 years ago with a mandate to shake things up and implement education reforms. His most publicized achievement has been a merit pay plan for teachers, the first such program in the Washington area.

Spillane is a hard-nosed administrator with a national reputation advanced by frequent nationwide speeches. His aggressive style in dealing with teachers, union leaders and other public officials has made a number of enemies who are taking delight in his current fix. But he has been highly popular with the School Board, which last summer boosted his annual salary to $100,000, the highest of any school superintendent in the Washington area.

Mary E. Collier, chairman of the School Board, said last week that the uproar over Spillane's statement has not shaken the board's support of Spillane. "We know he didn't say what he was quoted as saying," she said.

Still, some members have complained privately that Spillane did not keep them fully advised of the AIDS case, nor did he give them adequate warning before calling a news conference to respond to the lawsuit. "Strategically, it probably wasn't the best thing he could do," said one board member said who didn't want to be identified.

Some of Spillane's closest allies have urged him to end his dispute with The Post -- which they see as a no-win situation -- and try to put the controversy behind him. But with the disputed quote still a popular topic of political gossip in Fairfax County, that may not be easy.

"Whenever someone is quoted in a newspaper it's very difficult to erase that," said Mimi Dash, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the county's major teacher group. "Even Newsweek played it up. There are those who believe he said that, and that will hurt him."

The AIDS controversy surfaced in November, when a girl who became infected with AIDS through a transfusion (her name has been withheld by authorities) was excluded from kindergarten at Riverside Elementary School pending receipt of a complete medical report. Operating without a formal written policy, Fairfax school officials cited a state law that prohibits students with contagious or infectious diseases from attending class.

While Spillane signaled that it was unlikely the child would be allowed back into a regular classroom, he left the door open to that possibility while he awaited the recommendation of a three-member committee that was scheduled to meet Dec. 30 to review the case.

But attorneys for the family made a preemptive strike by filing suit Dec. 22 seeking the child's return to class.

Spillane responded by calling a news conference that afternoon, at the school system's headquarters, to say he would not be threatened by the lawsuit and that he would not permit a student with AIDS in the classroom unless he gets better assurances there would be no risk.

Cohn, 35, a former UPI reporter and Nieman Fellow who has covered Fairfax schools for The Post since 1985, was among the estimated 15 newspaper and television reporters at the news conference. Cohn has covered Spillane since he first arrived in Fairfax.

After the news conference, Cohn and several other reporters followed Spillane into the hallway. Phyllis Armstrong, a reporter with WUSA-TV (Channel 9), convinced Spillane to do a brief on-camera interview. Cohn and Peter Baker, a reporter with The Washington Times, stood by taking notes.

Cohn had a tape recorder with her, which she used to record Armstrong's interview, but she shut it off afterwards, put it in a pocket, and moved in with Baker to ask Spillane follow-up questions.

As Cohn recalled, Spillane was discussing a case in California where a 5-year-old boy with AIDS bit another child, and the latest recommendations of the surgeon general. "Then he made the statement that this kid will be dead in a few months, what's the point of the lawyer," Cohn said. "He made the remark in the context I attempted to place it in in the story, saying the child's life would be a happier one if the parents only settled things peacefully without going to litigation."

Cohn said she does not recall the question that triggered Spillane's comment. "My notes don't show it was made in the context of the lawyer's motivation," she said.

Baker and Armstrong said they recall hearing something close to what Cohn reported, but that they disagreed with the quote's context in the Post story. According to Baker's notes, Spillane said: "The sad part is this is a terminal case. The child may be dead in a few months. What's the point of this lawyer?"

"My interpretaton was that Spillane was attacking the motivation of the lawyer; that he {the lawyer} was essentially exploiting an ill child for political gain," Baker said. " . . . The impression people got from reading {The Post}, especially the photo caption, is he's saying, 'Who cares about this kid's education? She'll die in a couple of months. What's the point of putting her in the classroom?' That's not what he was saying."

Armstrong, who did not take notes, recalls Spillane questioning the motivation of the lawsuit and adding that "it's sad" that the child may die soon and that "it would have been better for the family and school system to have worked out an agreement that was best for the child."

After the news conference, Cohn called Douglas Feaver, The Post's Virginia editor, and filled him in on the news conference and Spillane's comment afterward. Before she hung up, she advised him that the AIDS victim technically had not been expelled.

Word of Spillane's comment quickly spread through the Post newsroom. Fred Barbash, the Post's deputy metropolitan editor, recommended the story for page one at an early evening news huddle of top editors.

But problems set in. Feaver, who edited the story, changed the word "ejected" in Cohn's copy to "expelled" in describing the child's status. "I should have known better," he said later. " . . . I was looking for a somewhat sharper verb than what was in the raw copy."

In Cohn's original draft, the quote was farther down in the story. As the first deadline approached, Barbash suggested that Feaver move it up to the third paragraph to strengthen the story. A copy editor put the word "expulsion" in the headline and, picking up on the quote in the third paragraph, wrote a subheadline saying that "Fairfax School Chief Scorns Parent's Suit."

The story ran at the bottom of page one.