The county executive told jokes and smiled broadly. School board, County Council and park and planning commission members congratulated one another on a job well done. The hoopla last week surrounding the groundbreaking for a new elementary school in the Largo area made it seem as though it was a simple project from drawing board to reality.

But as recently as three years ago, the school was not even on the county's long-range plan for new school construction. And more importantly, it was not on the list of projects submitted to the state for crucial funding approval.

So how did it go from pipe dream to a building that will open in August 2000?

The answer, according to county and state officials, is a combination of forces, from a vocal group of parents and civic leaders, to election promises from the governor, to lobbying by developers.

How the school moved forward on the county's ambitious building program--it is one of at least 13 new schools the county intends to build in the next six years--shows how different pressures and interests groups can affect such plans.

"It went from three years ago not even being a project to being a project that will be completed August of 2000," said County Council member Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville), who represents the district in which the school will be built. "When you see the 13 schools and you see this school here, it was because there was a lot of support."

Officials hailed the new 750-student school, to be built at a community center, as a visionary way to build schools while also cutting costs. The so-called community park-school building will share a gymnasium, parking lot, athletic fields and several rooms.

In all, officials say, the 98,803-square-foot project that will be built on Watkins Park Drive may cost the county about $1.5 million less than if the two facilities were built separately. Prince George's plans about six more similar school-community centers, which could reduce costs by as much as $3 million a project.

Such economies are vitally important in Prince George's, which has the state's largest school district, with 128,000 students, and is entering a new era of school construction as it phases out 26 years of busing for desegregation.

Last summer Russell, whose district is one of the fastest-growing in Prince George's County, sat down for lunch at a local barbecue joint with Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and a group of civic leaders. Those residents had complained loudly for years that the Kettering-Perrywood community in Largo was in desperate need of a new school to help alleviate crowding.

Kettering Elementary, which is operating at more than 30 percent over capacity, has been so crowded in recent years that its fifth- and sixth-graders attended classes in an administrative building in Bowie. Kingsford Elementary, which opened in 1994, is already packed, with enrollment more than 20 percent over capacity.

The governor, who was in a tough reelection race, made the group a promise, Russell recalled.

"The schools were the No. 1 issue that everyone talked about, and they wanted to know what he was going to do about it," Russell said. Glendening told the group that if he were reelected and saw the Kettering-Perrywood building come up, he would "take care of it." Russell campaigned for Glendening.

Glendening remembered the promise.

"Out of that meeting in that little restaurant came that new school," Glendening said in an interview last week. Glendening credited Russell for bringing the need for a school to his attention. "After the election, he said to me that more than anything else, you have to get that school built."

The county plans to build about six more of the combined community park-school buildings.

PLANNED SCHOOLS

The Prince George's school system plans to build at least 13 new schools in the next six years to ease crowding and end a desegregation busing system in place since 1972. Here's the list:

* Highland Park Elementary: Landover, September 1999

* Perrywood Community Park-School Center: August 2000

* Ardmore High School: Largo, September 2000

* Northwestern High (renovation): Hyattsville, September 2000

* Benjamin Davis Elementary: Landover, September 2001

* Hil Mar Community Park-School Center: Suitland, September 2001

* Hill Road Middle: Landover, September 2001

* Seat Pleasant Elementary: September 2001

* Greater Capitol Heights Community Park-School Center: September 2002

* Homer Avenue Elementary: Suitland, TBA

* Oxon Hill Middle School (renovation): TBA

* West Green Valley Elementary: Oxon Hill, TBA