Fourth grader David Tollick faces a tough choice. The 10-year-old Columbia pupil is torn between staying at his current school, Atholton Elementary, with classmates and teachers he knows, and transferring in September to Guilford Elementary to be with his best friend of six years.

"I really don't care, but my best friend Adam goes to Guilford," David said. "And he seems to like it a lot."

His mother Diane said the decision is up to David. "I care passionately, but I'm not hysterical," she said.

The Tollicks' casual attitude, however, is not shared by many of their neighbors. Parents in the fast-growing, middle-class Dickinson neighborhood in southeastern Columbia are sharply divided over a proposal to split the area's elementary schoolchildren to reduce crowding at Atholton and eventually at Guilford.

Part of the problem is that children do not want to be torn from their friends and the teachers they have grown to like. The other part is that some parents are protesting sending their children to a school with pupils who they said would be of a lower socioeconomic class.

The controversy in Columbia, a planned community designed to bring together people of different races and incomes, was stirred when the Howard County school system proposed transferring 80 Dickinson children from Atholton to Guilford in the fall. An additional 143 children scheduled for transfer would stay at Atholton until 1990 when a new Northeastern Elementary School is scheduled to open. Fifth graders, as David Tollick will be in the fall, can choose what school to attend.

At a public hearing last week and in separate interviews, some Dickinson parents said the opposition to Guilford centers on racial and economic differences between the two neighborhoods where the schools are located.

Guilford, which has a black student population of 28.2 percent, is in a historically black neighborhood that has become more racially diverse in the last few years. Atholton, in an older, established community of brick houses off Rte. 29, has a 9.5 percent black enrollment, according to school figures.

New town houses and detached single-family houses -- where some Atholton students live -- sell for $150,000 to $300,000, while town houses in the new Carter's Cove development across the street from Guilford start at $60,000.

Janice Podolny, parent of two Atholton pupils, opposed the school change because she said the move would not serve the children's best interest, it would divide the neighborhood, and the Atholton students would be different socioeconomically from the Guilford students.

Andi Sherman, another Atholton parent, said in an interview that Guilford is not highly ranked and that "it's in a lower socioeconomic area."

Several Dickinson parents also mentioned the county-owned Guilford Gardens subsidized housing project, which is next door to Guilford Elementary.

Half of the 100 units in the development are reserved for families of four with annual incomes of less than $26,000, said Rochell Brown, director of the county's housing and community development office. The remaining 50 units are rented at market rates, ranging from $361 a month for a one-bedroom apartment to $657 for a four-bedroom town house, according to the apartment management office.

Parents opposing the Atholton redistricting plan said they want the board to stick with an earlier decision to shift all of the Dickinson area pupils at one time to Guilford. Under that plan, 223 children were scheduled to be transferred in September from Atholton to Guilford.

Sherman, who lives two houses away from the Tollicks, said the proposed redistricting plan will separate her two children from longtime classmates who play together after school and on neighborhood sports teams.

"We want to keep our whole neighborhood together," Sherman said on a recent afternoon as she picked up her sons Benjamin, 7, and Brandon, 9, at Atholton.

Implementing the board's original plan would mean spending an unbudgeted $90,000 to place three portable classrooms at Guilford to handle the 223 additional students, said Maurice Kalin, assistant superintendent of planning and support services. Instead, Kalin has recommended phasing in the Atholton pupils at Guilford to keep crowding at a minimum at both schools.

Sherman, however, said she fears the Dickinson area children will become isolated at Guilford, unable to adjust to new teachers and schoolmates. "We're going to be such a small part" of Guilford's 400-member student body, Sherman said. "The change will be very disruptive."

Diane Tollick said parents are overreacting to the proposed redistricting plan. Tollick, a Brownie troop leader, said, "The kids who play soccer together or participate in scouting, that will not end. Good, close friends will still see each other. It's not the end of the world. I think the kids can handle it."