ELLICOTT CITY, Md., Aug. 22-For the second time this year, Howard County officials are faced with the problem of determining what use to make of a traditional focal point of small town life--a building that long served as a neighborhood school.

In response to the concerns of the Savage Community Association, the County Council agreed tonight to draw up criteria for the future use of the old Savage Elementary School. The 18-classroom school, built in 1938, was abandoned as an elementary school about 10 years ago, but was used for administration and special education programs until this year.

"Savage is an old mill town. The people have always done their own part," said Thomas Mateya, chairman of the association's school committee, of the community of 2,200 about three miles north of Laurel. "They feel they have earned the school and have a right to it. They feel the county owes them more than they're offering."

A survey conducted by the association showed strong opposition to most commercial or residential uses for the 3.6-acre site on Savage-Guilford Road. More acceptable were proposals for elderly housing or medical or legal offices, but mostly, residents suggested some kind of community use for the school, such as elderly or teen programs.

Converting an old school building to another community use presents its own problems. In the past 10 years, the building has deteriorated to the point that county officials estimated that it would cost $250,000 just to weatherize the structure.

"We're trying to be realistic," Mateya said. "We're simply asking for a good neighbor. Most residents have been there for generations or were attracted by the rural quality of life. We can save it or lose it very quickly."

The criteria developed by the council over the next two weeks will ask prospective developers to address such issues as community access to the old multipurpose room and possible traffic congestion. But placing restrictions on development could hamper sale efforts, according to county community development coordinator Rochell Brown, who last month finally completed a seven-year effort to sell Ellicott City Elementary School.