It didn't take long for the battle lines to form over next year's Howard County school budget.

Howard County School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said his $200.8 million operating budget request, a 11.8 percent increase over current spending, is a justifiable compromise between "growing needs and declining resources."

"I tried to bring in the smallest budget I could," he said.

School board Chairman Deborah D. Kendig said the bottom line seems "about right" at first glance, "given that we are a school system that is still growing."

And school board member Karen B. Campbell said the proposed budget figure might even be a little low, given that she would like to see more money for elementary school guidance counselors. "I personally don't anticipate making wholesale cuts," Campbell said.

But Hickey's proposal seems excessive to other county officials struggling to make ends meet in a time of economic uncertainty.

"Twelve percent is money we don't have," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker (R), who is wrestling to meet a budget shortfall this year of up to $20 million.

"My guess is that there is very little possibility that we'll be able to fund that," added council member Darrel Drown (R-District 2). "We won't be certain what we can do until we see what the first quarter brings us as far as the economy goes. But if things don't get better, then everybody will have to take their fair share of cuts."

The school budget is expected to be examined very carefully this year because of the lean times and because two former school system insiders now hold key positions in county government.

Until his election in November, Drown was the school system's budget officer. He helped draft the current proposal. Ecker spent 16 years in the school system's administration before retiring in 1989.

The new faces "may not bring closer scrutiny, but it could bring different scrutiny," Drown said.

He said he may look into whether savings are possible in the school system's administrative budget, a cost-cutting target Ecker mentioned frequently on the campaign trail. He said that, based on 1988 figures, Howard County spent more per pupil on administrative costs than any other jurisdiction in the state.

"We might want to look at whether some administrators can be moved back into the classroom or a principal's office," Drown said.

Before Drown or Ecker get a chance to consider school spending, Hickey's proposal must be reviewed by the school board. The school board is expected to adopt the budget Feb. 19. The board then must get County Council approval for the county's share.

More than three-quarters of the proposed budget, or $157.5 million, is funded through county taxes. The county's contribution would increase by 12.1 percent if Hickey's request is approved.

Hickey said in a letter attached to his budget that more than half the spending increase is needed to maintain existing programs and class sizes in the growing school system. Another 40 percent of the increase would go toward meeting negotiated salaries and fringe benefits. County teachers are due a 6 percent cost-of-living increase as part of their three-year contract.

Only $1.3 million, or 6.2 percent of the increase, would be for new efforts. Hickey has proposed that the county spend $431,000 of that to provide for an optional seventh period for high school students during the regular lunch shift. Seven of the county's eight high schools now offer a six-period schedule. The county's eighth high school, Wilde Lake, provides opportunities for students to take more than six classes a semester.

"What is reflected here is a carefully balanced proposal which we feel meets the needs of this dynamic school system and at the same time responds to the fiscal situation we all must face," he wrote.

Hickey said school officials worry that they may see their funding from the state cut because of its budget problems and because of interest in adjusting the state's tax system to help poorer localities.

He also said his budget proposal takes into account the school system's fair share of cuts. He said he rejected more than $15 million in budget requests in an effort to "hold the line on spending but deal with the growth we have."

The proposed budget projects that enrollment will increase by more than 1,000 students next year -- to 30,156. School officials hope to open two schools next year, an elementary school near Clarksville and a middle school in Waterloo.

Hickey said the school system's administrative expenses have been attacked before. "It is everyone's favorite whipping boy, but I always ask people, 'What services is it that you don't want us to provide?' Nobody can ever find agreement on that," he said.