For the time being, Howard County will continue using only privately owned buses to transport its students.

The county Board of Education last week postponed action for this year on a plan to buy five buses to serve the growing school population after Superintendent Michael E. Hickey reversed himself and recommended against it.

The school system spent $10.6 million on bus transportation in fiscal 1990. Administrators were concerned that the pool of bus contractors might not be able to keep up with growing school enrollment.

The recommendation to begin to buy and operate buses, at a cost of $188,240 in the first year, was made by a consultant, who said the board could save $1.7 million in the next decade. But the Howard County School Bus Contractors Association fought back, disputing the potential savings. The consultant's estimate was subsequently revised downward by about $1 million.

Hickey said that, after listening to several months of debate, he had concluded that there was "not sufficient justification to warrant the creation of a dual system of pupil transportation." His proposal had been based on "a perceived need for expanded services" rather than an existing problem, he said. But he said that if additional buses are needed in the future he will ask the board to reconsider the ownership issue.

"If we can maintain high standards through the private system, maybe we are moving too fast on public ownership," board member Ruth Hutchinson said.

In the past school year, Howard County used 333 privately owned school buses to transport more than 23,000 students. It is the state's largest contract school bus system. Montgomery and Prince George's counties rely almost entirely on county-owned buses.

In other action at last Thursday's meeting, the board voted to:Begin offering two new high school electives in the fall, one a course on art in society and the other for special education instructional assistants. Reject a proposal for anabolic steriod testing of student athletes. "It really would have provided us with substantial potential legal risks," board member Anne L. Dodd said.

The board said it will instead consider trying to educate students, parents and staff about the dangers of such muscle-enhancing drugs.

The testing proposal had been made by Hammond High School's football coach, Joe Russo, who said he was alarmed about a national study showing that more than 5 percent of young male athletes use the drugs.

However, he said there is no indication that county athletes are using steroids.

Meanwhile, the steering committee of the Howard County Coaches Association voted last Thursday to recommend that the county's 209 athletic coaches withdraw their threat to strike over pay this fall.

Coaches had asked the board to reopen negotiations over pay increases for the next three years.

But the association's steering committee recommended that the coaches who are not entitled to special pre-season pay break their habit of voluntarily starting early. Included are volleyball, cross country and field hockey coaches.