One of the last things Calvert County Schools Superintendent James R. Hook wants is a high school with more than 1,500 students.

But that's exactly what he thinks he's going to get. That is, unless the county builds a fourth high school. And maybe even a fifth.

As school enrollments have swelled in Maryland's fastest-growing county, Calvert education officials have chosen to build new schools, Hook said. In 1996, it was Patuxent High School and two elementary schools. This fall, it was Dowell Elementary in Lusby. Next fall, the county should have a new middle school.

If the state approves the school system's capital improvements program for fiscal 2001 to 2006, the county will build at least one new high school. The price tag is projected to be more than $30 million, school officials said.

"The cost of construction has gone up dramatically," said Lloyd Robertson, an administrator in the school system's main office.

Board of Education members took their first look at the proposed capital improvements program last week. They were faced with this tough prospect: If the school district's enrollment projections prove correct, the county's three existing public high schools will be as many as 500 students over capacity in four years, Hook said.

The capital improvements proposal calls for planning of the fourth high school to begin in 2002. If approved by the county and state, the new high school would be ready sometime after 2004.

The question school board members are asking themselves is where a fourth high school should go, and Hook said much of that decision depends on whether their planning assumes that a fifth high school would be built later.

While the possibility of a fifth high school has been part of the school board's discussions, county commissioners said their move to slow growth through a 50 percent reduction in the housing units allowed in the future should quash the need for additional high schools.

Some are adamant about it. "The county said there was no need for a fifth or sixth high school," said Commissioner Patrick M. Buehler (D-St. Leonard). "There is absolutely, under the evidence presented to our Board of Commissioners [by county planners], no need."

At last week's school board meeting, however, some members seemed to think otherwise.

"We're going to need two more high schools," said Ruth T. Keimig. "I don't see why there's any reason to think we're not."

There is a sense of urgency about anything that will keep schools small.

"By this time next year, we're going to have to know where the building place is, and hopefully we'll have the land," Hook said.