This year, Howard County school officials decided to change the budget preparation process to get more suggestions from the front lines.

Principals on each level -- elementary, middle and high school -- were asked as a group to select two priorities and to suggest ways to cut $750,000 in expenses.

The idea backfired.

Not one of the priorities identified by the principals is included in Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed $133.7 million operating budget for fiscal 1989. And the principals, trying to protect their own turf, recommended cuts in someone else's programs instead of their own, said Charles Ecker, associate superintendent of finance and operations.

"They wanted to trade something they didn't have," Ecker said.

The failure of the exercise is a small but vivid example of how a school system accustomed to growth and expansion is struggling as it learns to lower its financial sights. In the end, Hickey last week unveiled what he considers his most austere budget since he assumed the helm of the Howard school system four years ago.

Hickey, who described his proposal as a "hold-the-line" budget, said his recommendations are an attempt to balance the high expectations of parents and the economic realities of a county trying to keep pace with rapid growth.

Echoing a common theme heard at recent public meetings, Hickey said, "I don't think we'll ever be able to have it all."

For the next school year, that means no additional guidance counselors or data processing clerks at county high schools.

Middle school principals cannot hire new administrative aides or the 10 additional teachers they wanted for the program for the gifted and talented.

There will be no guidance counselors for elementary school pupils or longer workdays for principals' secretaries.

Hickey's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning in July calls for a 14.1 percent increase over the current budget.

About $10.3 million of the $16.5 million increase will be used to honor an 8 percent contract pay increase for the system's 1,908 teachers that was negotiated last year.

An 8 percent pay increase for central administration staff also is included in Hickey's budget proposal.

That recommendation may draw fire from county officials, who last year criticized an identical increase as excessive.

In comparison, county government employes received a 5 percent pay raise last year.

The second largest portion of the increase, $5.6 million, will be used to accommodate growth, Hickey said. This year, 995 new students enrolled in county schools and officials project 1,000 new students next fall.

Of the 118.5 new positions requested for next year, about 80 will be for new teachers, principals and teachers' aides, including 10 additional special-education teachers. Many of the 39 new elementary school teachers will be assigned to Bollman Bridge Elementary School, set to open next fall.

School officials said Hickey's proposed 1989 budget has little fat. His request now goes to the school board, which then sends its budget to the County Council for consideration.

Overall, county taxpayers would foot $101.4 million, or 75.9 percent, of the proposed budget. The state would pick up 23 percent of the cost, with the remainder coming from the federal government and grants.

Hickey has proposed few new initiatives for next year. His 1989 budget includes $511,000 for new improvements, a substantial drop from requests that have reached $2 million in past years. Most of the improvements will go toward restoring cuts in last year's budget.

For example, Hickey has asked for $133,000 for an expanded summer school program next year for all grade levels, as well as special education. Last year, summer school was limited to review courses for high school students, along with a four-week program for special education.

Other improvements proposed in Hickey's budget are a part-time teacher for the teen parenthood program at a cost of $12,680 and five band teachers for the middle schools for $126,800. Hickey also said he will request $19,000 from the county's budget for a second school bus for the teen parenthood program.

Hickey's proposed budget also includes $246,310 to transport about 600 students to four parochial schools, although some board members have said they want to cancel the service.

School officials are bracing for a tough budget battle. Last year, the school board approved a $122.4 million budget, nearly $7 million more than Hickey had proposed. However, the County Council slashed $4.1 million from that.