ELLICOTT CITY, MD. -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal to establish a state-run, residential high school devoted to the study of math and science has been harshly criticized by educators in some Maryland counties, sparking a debate about whether the school's mission would be one of education or economics.

The Howard County Board of Education unanimously voted last week to withhold its support from a bid to locate the school here.. Among the reasons board members cited for their opposition was the belief that the 600-student school would not significantly affect the quality or quantity of residents seeking high-tech careers, but would siphon funds that could otherwise be spent by the state's 24 local school districts.

The school is "sensationalism at its worst," said board member Karen Campbell. It would "take dollars and spend them on the academic elite and drain them from dollars that would be and should be spent on the majority of students." State officials have estimated that the school would require $20 million for construction and $13,000 to $14,000 per student in operating costs.

In recommending that the school board oppose the project, Howard School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey questioned the wisdom of encouraging high school students to specialize in a particular field at a time when "colleges and universities have been resoundingly criticized for forcing students into paths of specialization too early." He added that as a boarding school, the facility would eliminate "the role of the parents in promoting and fostering learning for their children."

It "is not an educational initiative, but an economic development initiative, and our involvement in it isn't appropriate," Hickey said.

State officials are hoping to locate the Maryland School for Science and Technology in an existing school facility on at least 45 acres of land. The school would offer college-level courses in the sciences, mathematics and computer science, and extracurricular activities. Plans call to have the first class, which would be selected using a competitive admissions process, in place by September 1989, and a nationwide search for a director is under way.

In at least two jurisdictions, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, educators have joined forces with their county officials to enthusiastically embrace the proposal and actively lobby for the facility.

Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening said Tuesday that the county will submit a plan to state officials today to locate the school at an elementary and middle school complex in Greenbelt. Under that proposal, the county would donate the Goddard Middle School and Reed Elementary School buildings to the state this summer. Glendening could not say whether the county would help pay the cost for renovating the schools, which would require major repairs.

The question of what the "super high school" would bring to Maryland -- either in terms of academic superiority, cold, hard cash or both -- has not been resolved. When Schaefer introduced the project to elected officials in August, he said the future of Maryland's economy rests, in part, on the state's ability to lure high-tech corporations with the promise of a highly educated work force.

"It is not a dichotomy," said David Falk, executive policy adviser to Schaefer. "The school has some economic value. It is first and foremost an educational facility. If it had no educational value, it would have no economic value."

Falk said that the money for the school would be in addition to what the state spends on education and would not jeopardize local programs.

"What it brings is one more solution to a nationwide problem, which is that there aren't enough kids going into the sciences," Falk said. "It's not to say that Maryland schools aren't doing well, but a residential school has a different value in that it makes the experience more intensive and provides an extra impetus."

That argument has found more favor with government officials than educators. Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo has been working with an anonymous donor to secure a possible site for the school. Despite the school board's reservations, she believes the county's central location would make it ideal for such a project.

"Like it or not, the school is going to be built somewhere, so the question becomes, should we work to have it located here?" Bobo said. "I think the answer should be yes. But if we're not going to do it in a unified way, there isn't much sense in putting effort into it because we're not going to be successful."

Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer is still considering the proposal without the input of the local school board. Robert Agee, an assistant to Lighthizer, said, "It's certainly an asset for your community. We have taken pride in our reputation as a growing area for research and development. This does nothing but enhance that reputation."

But Robert C. Rice, Anne Arundel's superintendent of schools, said he is skeptical that the school will succeed in either raising educational standards or providing more job candidates for businesses. He noted that most of the larger school districts already have advanced placement programs or magnet schools to appeal to the interests of their scientifically minded students.

In Montgomery County, the school board was split on the issue and County Executive Sidney Kramer and School Superintendent Harry Pitt said they were behind the project. Last week, however, Kramer sent a letter to Schaefer indicating that "with great reluctance and regret" the county would not be submitting a proposal because no suitable site had been located.

Schaefer plans to submit legislation to the General Assembly next year to fund the school, and several legislators said they were surprised that the governor had not yet tried to gain political support for the project, especially since he wants to see it open next year. They conceded, however, that if Schaefer makes the project a high priority, it will undoubtedly win approval.

"I think it's sad that we could make a decision in Annapolis that is diametrically opposed to what educators are saying," said Del. Susan Buswell (D-Howard County), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "This issue is dealing with the kids that ostensibly they are responsible for. The basis on which it should be judged is if it makes sense educationally." Staff writer Leah Latimer contributed to this report.