Calvert County's "leveraging" plan to finance open space preservation has been revised by staff members, approved by commissioners and converted into a nifty Power Point presentation. The next step: gaining bond authority from state legislators to pay for the 24-year program.

At a meeting in Prince Frederick on Thursday that included some tough questions about education funding, commissioners quickly won an early endorsement for the leveraging proposal from state Sens. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's, Calvert) and Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's, Calvert), and Del. George W. Owings III (D-Calvert).

County staff members gave the lawmakers a comprehensive look at the financing plan that would enable Calvert to preserve nearly 10,000 acres of open space by 2003. Under the program, farmers could sell to the county the development rights to their property, receiving a lump-sum payment upfront or tax-free interest checks for 15 years, with a lump sum to be collected after that period. Officials expect that enough sellers will choose the 15-year option that the county will be able to lock up many more development rights than if they all had to be bought outright.

Officials say the preservation will slow growth, ultimately saving the county money that would go toward roads and schools if those areas were developed.

Miller said he plans to support the leveraging deal, but stressed that he expects to see the same effort put forth for the county's education funding, which he called inadequate. The Board of Education was critical of commissioners last week after they decided to cap growth in school spending at 2 percent in the coming year.

"I'm for holding down growth and preserving farmland, but I also mentioned the fact that Calvert County continues to spend less on its schoolchildren than neighboring Charles and St. Mary's," Miller said. "I want to make sure that revenues are spent wisely on education."

For the last two school years, Calvert's overall per-pupil spending has lagged slightly behind that of Charles and St. Mary's counties. But state education officials say one reason is that Calvert is wealthier than the rest of Southern Maryland and receives less state money for school operations than the other two counties, leaving commissioners to spend more local tax dollars on students.

Commissioner John Douglas Parran (At Large) said he and other commissioners simply want the Board of Education to look over its budget and remove unnecessary items.

"[The legislators] were concerned that the Agricultural Preservation Program not be funded at the expense of the Board of Education, and we assured them that was not the case," said Parran, who is politically unaffiliated.

In all, the preservation program could set aside 28,000 undeveloped acres by 2024, at a price tag of $20.5 million. Commissioners are seeking bond authority for $10.3 million over the next three years for the leveraging plan, as well as $9.5 million for unrelated courthouse renovations and other improvements, said Sherrod Sturrock, the county's capital projects coordinator.

Calvert County's formal legislative requests--including one for the $20 million total bond authority--will be announced at a Nov. 16 hearing on its 2000 agenda. The meeting, to be held in Annapolis, will be hosted by the Calvert County League of Women Voters.