Plans for school expansion in Howard County are raising concerns among arts supporters, who fear that they may lose the Rockland Arts Center, which is housed in a converted elementary school in Ellicott City.

Such a move would be a serious blow for an arts community that was in disarray until acquiring the building in 1984, the boosters said. Until that time many Howard County residents in search of culture traveled to Washington or Baltimore, and local artists fashioned studios out of spare rooms and garages.

"There was no space, no funding and no coordination among arts groups," said Mary Toth, director of the Howard County Arts Council.

That changed when the school board closed Rockland Elementary School in Ellicott City because of declining enrollments and the arts council arranged to lease the space for the county's first arts center.

With funding from county grants and the elbow grease of its members, the arts council installed a dance floor, professional quality lighting and three galleries, turning the abandoned elementary school into a bustling arts center.

Last year about 30,000 people took advantage of the centers' 36 art exhibits, 60 classes and scores of live performances. In addition, the center housed 28 studios for artists, and the arts council awarded almost $40,000 in grants to local artists.

Now the future of the center is in question. Among the options that the school system is considering in an effort to cope with the booming school age population is a reopening of the Rockland Elementary school as early as next fall.

The arts council's lease on the space expires in June 1989, but school officials said the lease has a provision that allows them to terminate it with 90 days notice.

"We expect they will honor the lease," said Toth. "And we'll fight it if they decide not to." The arts center rents the building from the school system for $25,000 a year.

"It's not a profit-making venture for us," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "That's what it costs us to keep it open."

Anne Dodd, chairman of the school board, said that reopening Rockland is "not our first choice. But should it become a necessity, the kids come first." Dodd said that the chances of the arts center moving to another school building were slim.

A report presented to the school board two weeks ago estimated that a full-scale renovation of the building -- so that it could accommodate students again -- would cost the system $3.5 million -- a price tag that the superintendent thinks is too high.

Hickey said to bring the school up to "a substandard educational level" would cost $100,000 and would cost almost four times that amount to bring it up to today's standards. But he added, if the system took the school back it would be for only a year or two.

He said that such a transfer could create problems.

"It wouldn't really be worth the disruption," he said, "both for the arts center and the parents and kids who'd have to move again the next year."

Even if the school system just "borrowed" the school back it would have a severe effect on the arts center, said Toth. "We'd have to shut down for a time and it would be hard to start up again. People forget that you were there."

Toth said that the school board led the arts council to believe that its future at Rockland was secure.

"If they'd asked us to move six months after we moved in that's one thing. It's more difficult after a period of time to uproot and relocate," she said.

Toth estimates that the arts council has invested from $17,000 to $20,000 upgrading the building. "Most of the improvements we couldn't take with us and would be lost if we had to move," she said.

One tenant that stands to lose is the Maryland Museum of African Art, a private collection of artwork and artifacts. Much of the museum is built around the collection of Doris and Claude Ligon.

For four years before the center was established, the Ligons carted their artwork from school foyer to school foyer until the museum moved into the Rockland center three years ago.

"We've been able to expand here and design our own space," said Doris Ligon, executive director of the museum. "And we can exhibit better pieces and people know where we are."