Howard County's school superintendent and county executive responded yesterday to growing community concerns about inequities among schools, launching a task force to assess the quality of education and facilities throughout the 40,000-student system.

"I'm hoping that the results will be that if this is all perception, that we can dispel the perception," said County Executive James N. Robey (D). "If it is reality, and I suspect in many cases it is, that we will come back with recommendations to address the problems."

As parts of the county, including Columbia and North Laurel, have aged and more affluent residents have moved to newer communities, some parents have complained that older schools are left with more struggling students and poorer facilities, while new schools get the most up-to-date equipment and some of the county's strongest principals.

Such concerns are not new--during annual redistrictings, parents often express reluctance to have their children moved to certain schools--and overall, Howard parents are satisfied with their children's education, according to a school system survey.

But the issue was spotlighted in September, when parents of 55 students at an older Columbia school, Wilde Lake Middle, withdrew their children and sent them to a brand-new school, Lime Kiln Middle, in Fulton.

Since then, Board of Education and County Council members have been bombarded with complaints that the inequities among schools in technology, textbooks, building conditions and leadership are pervasive.

"I've watched this matter grow over the last several months, and . . . I was starting to get criticism as executive for not taking a leadership role as the executive in helping to solve this problem," Robey said.

The Leadership Committee on School Equity, comprising about 23 parents, business leaders, community activists and others, will be chaired by business consultant Bill Benton and Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan. The members will visit schools and interview parents, teachers, students and administrators to assess what, if anything, needs to be done to balance resources more evenly and will report on their recommendations by March 1.

Board of Education Chairman Karen B. Campbell said yesterday that the board has been addressing equity concerns to the best of its ability for years.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, while assuring that he would work hard to make sure schools are equitably staffed and equipped, warned they will never be equal. "We will never be in a position as a school system to allocate resources equally, nor should we be, in my judgment," he said.

Later, he added: "There is no way possible that I can conceive of making a 25- or 30-year-old school the same as a school that opens this year. . . . The only way that we as a school system can offer complete equality, I think, is in the teaching that takes place in the classroom."

The Howard school system is widely considered one of the state's finest; it ranks No. 1 on Maryland's annual school performance exams.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia), who launched a separate effort last week to hear complaints about equity from the community, said, "We cannot be satisfied until not only the averages but also the extremes of our system are enviable."