A long-standing dispute over the ethnic and economic balance of Alexandria's public schools has sparked a new debate over proposed changes in two of the city's most disadvantaged elementary schools.

School Superintendent Herbert M. Berg is scheduled to give the School Board details of his plan tonight for special programs at Jefferson-Houston and Lyles-Crouch elementary schools. Several parents and community activists have expressed concern that the new focus programs, which concentrate on one area, will not have enough funds and trained staff.

Jefferson-Houston Principal Blanche Hutchinson said she plans to give her curriculum a focus on visual and performing arts, while Lyles-Crouch Principal Lucretia Jackson said she wants a traditional school program, with a heavy emphasis on phonics and homework. Critics say they like the principals and their plans but fear the school system is not giving them enough time and money to meet the September 2000 deadline.

"Putting together a focus school is not like putting together a legal brief at the last minute--you have to develop a curriculum," said Victor M. Glasberg, a lawyer and one of the leaders of the Coalition for Fairness in Education. Beth Stephens, who will have a child at Jefferson-Houston next year, said she hoped the School Board would provide the necessary funds so "it can be an exciting program that would benefit all the children in our city."

The coalition has objected to a redistricting plan that has left the two schools with many empty desks and the highest concentration of low-income black children in the city. The focus school plan is designed both to improve instruction for those children and to encourage students from other parts of the city to enroll in the schools.

In a Nov. 15 letter addressing Glasberg's concerns, the superintendent said Hutchinson, the Jefferson-Houston principal, had visited successful arts focus programs in Fairfax and Prince George's counties and had exchanged telephone calls and e-mail with the principal of another program in Akron, Ohio. Jackson, the Lyles-Crouch principal, has visited traditional school programs in Arlington and Prince George's counties. Berg assigned Richard Murphy, former principal of George Washington Middle School, to substitute for Hutchinson and Jackson two days a week so they can concentrate on planning their new programs.

The coalition distributed a flier earlier this month asking if the programs would "have a FOCUS . . . or is it HOCUS POCUS?" The group called a community meeting on the issue, which was attended by seven of the nine School Board members. Many of the School Board members said they are ready to support whatever spending Berg tells them is necessary. "I still don't know if the train can get to the station on time," Glasberg said, "but it was an extraordinarily productive meeting."

Some board members have disagreed, however, over how much support the new programs require.

Sally Ann Baynard, one of only two board members to vote against the redistricting plan that will go into effect in September 2000, said she supported more services for both the new focus schools as well as the Mount Vernon Community School, which has the highest concentration of Spanish-speaking students in the city. She said all three should have summer school programs, no more than 15 students a class in kindergarten through third grade and transportation for students coming from other parts of the city.

"These three schools are being changed only because the redistricting was done the way it was," Baynard said. "Complaints about the cost of these three programs--or using their costs to justify cutting other worthwhile programs--will fall on very deaf ears. It was the choice of the majority of the board to do the redistricting the way it did, and now is the time to pay for it."

Board member Mary M. "Mollie" Danforth said the board was told the new programs did not require additional funds, although she favored building renovations at Lyles-Crouch and more arts instructors for Jefferson-Houston. "Ms. Baynard now feels she can blackmail other board members into spending the taxpayers' dollars unnecessarily when good, solid programs can be created with little additional expense," Danforth said. "We need to provide for our children, but not by gratuitously throwing money at problems as Ms. Baynard seems to suggest."

Board Chairman Stephen J. Kenealy said he thought the programs would need more money, which he said could be found if the new programs are installed a piece at a time. "You wouldn't go into this program or any program trying to build the end product in the first year," he said.