Montgomery County school officials thought it would be fitting to honor the renowned environmentalist Rachel Carson by naming a new elementary school for her in Gaithersburg.

But nothing's easy.

With 502 students scheduled to arrive in three weeks, city officials, in a defiant act of civic pride, are refusing to hand over the deed.

It's not that they have anything against Carson, who exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT in her 1962 bestseller, "Silent Spring." But as a name for their community's newest school, they think Carson is no match for the late Otis Beall Kent.

Kent was a tax lawyer, music lover and ardent conservationist who in the 1940s turned his 1,000-acre Gaithersburg estate, Kentlands, into a nature preserve. The people of Gaithersburg had assumed that the school would bear the estate's name.

But "Kentlands" ran afoul of a new effort by the Montgomery Board of Education to practice a kind of affirmative action in school nomenclature. For the next four years, the board decided last spring, every school that opens in Montgomery will be named for a minority-group member or a woman.

To Gaitherburg's political leaders, those were fighting words. "We have instructed our attorney that the deed be prepared with a covenant that the school be named Kentlands Elementary School," said W. Edward Bohrer Jr., mayor of the northern Montgomery city of 40,000.

"Rachel Carson was a very fine person, and there should be schools named after her," Bohrer said. "But Gaitherburg has a proud and cherished history that we want to have placed on our schools, so kids have a sense of roots, so they . . . understand what Otis Beall Kent did for the community."

School board President Robert E. Shoenberg noted that before the new rule, fewer than a half-dozen of Montgomery's 165 schools were named for women and minorities. "If you're a woman or a minority, you see all these schools named for white men and think, 'Look, haven't we made contributions to the life of Montgomery County and the United States?' Of course they have."

For several years, Shoenberg said, school officials have tried to nudge communities, which are allowed to nominate names to the school board, to practice affirmative action on their own -- to little avail.

So this spring, the board bypassed "Kentlands" for Carson, who lived in the county and had placed a distant second in a community survey of preferred names.

"After the board made its decision, there were a couple people that said they were disappointed, but . . . I'm not sensing a lot of grief and bickering in the community," said Laura Hart Silkwood, the principal of the new school.

But city leaders have been less willing to let the matter drop. In June, Bohrer and the City Council's five members dispatched a terse letter to the school board, informing it of the deed's conditions. The board "leaves us no recourse on this matter due to its uncompromising implementation of an unyielding policy," the letter said.

As a practical matter, no one seems quite sure what difference it makes if the city refuses to relinquish the deed, which covers the property but not the school itself.

"We intend to occupy the building," said Philip H. Rohr, the school system's associate superintendent who oversees school construction. Bohrer said the city would not keep teachers or children out.

City officials asked the board to reconsider later this month, but both Bohrer and Shoenberg said they thought that was unlikely.

In the meantime, compromise seems elusive. Board members suggested at the meeting that a school garden could be named for Kent, or perhaps the auditorium. Bohrer had a counterproposal: "I thought it would be great," he said, "to name the garden for Rachel Carson."