The on-again, off-again elementary school proposed for northeastern Howard County may be on again.

To accommodate 16 percent growth projected in Howard County's school population in the next five years, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey presented a fiscal 2001 capital budget to the Board of Education that suggests opening the new school in 2003, building additions to many existing schools and redistricting some students as soon as next year. His plan would cost $51 million in 2001 and $246 million over 10 years.

The northeastern school, which would hold 600 students, had been slated to open this year. But officials took it off the drawing board, thinking there would be enough space available elsewhere to accommodate the growing elementary school population, anticipated to peak in 2001. There were cost concerns, too. Building a school costs an average of $18,000 for each student served, while additions cost $9,000 a seat and relocatable classrooms $1,920 a seat, according to Maurice Kalin, associate superintendent.

Groups of parents who did not want their children relocated into less-crowded Columbia schools lobbied the Board of Education hard for the new school, but Hickey said that pressure was not what prompted him to resurrect the plan. Instead, he said, enrollment is expected to peak two years later than previously thought, in 2003. Also, an initiative to shrink first- and second-grade classes requires so much more space--as many as 2,256 seats, according to officials--that redistricting couldn't take the place of a new school.

"We're really going to need it now," Hickey said.

Officials have started searching for a site for the school. Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin said it might be difficult to find an affordable piece of land that meets the county's 15-acre minimum for elementary school sites.

In the meantime, Hickey's budget suggests that at least 200 students still will need to be relocated from the northeast into the Columbia East region. His proposal does not include a new elementary school in the west, which many parents had hoped for, but calls for nine more elementary additions: at Forest Ridge and Pointers Run in 2001; Clarksville and Hollifield Station in 2002; Gorman Crossing and Fulton in 2003; and Waverly, Bushy Park and Lisbon in 2004.

Howard's elementary school population--excluding kindergartners--is projected to grow 4 percent by 2005. If his plan is not implemented, Hickey said, 25 of the 37 elementary schools will be over capacity by then.

When the younger grades will be peaking in size, secondary school populations will still be growing. By 2005, the middle school population will grow 21 percent, and it will not peak until 2007, according to projections. Two new schools (the Ellicott Mills replacement in 2001 and a school in the western region in 2003) have already been planned. Hickey's budget adds the possibility of more redistricting, an addition at Patapsco and relocatable classrooms at Mayfield Woods.

To accommodate a 31 percent growth in the high school population by 2005, Hickey proposes shifting students from schools surrounding Oakland Mills into the east Columbia school next year. The opening of a new high school in the southeastern part of the county in 2002 also should help. The high school population is not projected to peak until 2010.

While Hickey's plan may alleviate the county's crowding problems temporarily, board members brought up some longer-term issues that may complicate the matter. The ultimate goal of the county and state, Chairman Karen B. Campbell pointed out, is to reduce class sizes in not just first and second grades, but also kindergarten and third grade--requiring even more space.

Vice Chairman Steven C. Bounds suggested that as older Columbians move out, leaving more empty schools that can absorb population from the suburbs, families with young children may cycle back into the city so that redistricting no longer solves the problem.

The Board of Education submits its version of the capital budget to the County Council in March.

A public hearing on the budget will be held at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7 in the boardroom of the Department of Education building, 10910 Route 108 in Ellicott City.