The boards of education in St. Mary's and Calvert counties are trying to come to terms with this grim reality: Their counties cannot afford everything the schools say they need.

In the last month, county commissioners and school board members have been at odds over when major building projects should be funded.

In Calvert County, the dispute has been over timing for a fourth high school and an expanded career center.

The issues in St. Mary's County concern when the St. Mary's County Technical Center and a replacement for Carver Elementary School should get underway.

In both counties, commissioners have told the school boards that they cannot afford the projects--each one would cost millions of dollars--within the desired time frames. School officials have said that they need the projects as soon as possible to keep up with the pace of growth in enrollments.

The disagreements have been greater in Calvert County, where some school officials and county commissioners have carried on a public verbal battle in recent weeks.

The school board's proposed building budget for fiscal years 2001 to 2006 called for the career center project to begin in 2001 at a cost of more than $12 million. The county commissioners said they were expecting that project to begin in 2004 with a price tag of less than $6 million. Because the project first surfaced in last year's capital improvements plan, the commissioners balked at funding it so soon.

The Calvert Board of Education also asked for more than $30 million for planning and building a new high school, with construction beginning in 2003. County commissioners had been anticipating that the project would begin a year later at a lower cost.

Commissioners President Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings) wants to make one thing clear in a debate that occasionally has questioned the commissioners' support for education: The Board of County Commissioners is not cutting anything out of the capital budget or delaying any projects.

"We didn't strike anything," she said. "What we didn't do is move it forward for very sound reasons."

Terry Shannon, Calvert's director of administration and finance, said paying for all the projects the school board requested in the time span it outlined would require the county property tax rate to go up by 17 cents. That would be nearly an 8 percent increase over the current rate of $2.23 per $100 of assessed value.

Education spending was a major factor in Charles County's decision to raise local taxes last year. That may account in part for the lack of any major confrontation so far in this prebudget season in La Plata.

Calvert Schools Superintendent James R. Hook said his county needs to reconsider the tax rate.

"We just have so many needs for our current tax rates," Hook said. "Somewhere along the line there is not enough revenue."

The county has so many agencies, departments and services to fund, he said, that "if you add all those things and try to put education in, there's just not enough."

Commissioner Kelley said Calvert has a strong commitment to education and has increased school funding substantially in the last decade. "I'm tired of having this board represented as anti-education," Kelley said.

"The decision made by this Board of County Commissioners has been one that's prudent," she added. "We have to look at the needs of the entire county."

Kelley said the superintendent and school board members have tried to gain public sympathy to put pressure on the commissioners to finance their requests. "It's designed to whip up public sentiment in their favor, to put pressure on us," she said.

The tensions between Calvert's two elected boards apparently have risen to the point that officials have moved to calm the interchanges. Last week a statement issued by Calvert County government announced that "bilateral talks" had been initiated.

Starting this week, county government staff and Board of Education staff are meeting at least once a month. Part of the problem, officials said, is that the two governing bodies are using different population projections and school capacity figures. The meetings should get both groups on the same page, said Shannon, who is spearheading the series of meetings.

The debate in St. Mary's County has been much more subdued.

Last week, the county commissioners decided not to support the school board's proposed appeal of the Interagency Committee for Public School Construction's rejection of the Carver Elementary and tech center projects. They said they were not sure of the county's ability to afford the projects.

"You need to have a good idea of where the funding is coming from," said Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills).

The tech center renovation project would cost about $18 million. School officials were planning to build a new Carver Elementary School because the Lexington Park school lies within the flight path for planes landing at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The project would cost about $11 million.

School board members and staff went before the committee Friday to appeal its decision not to approve other projects--including the Leonardtown High School and Lexington Park Elementary School addition and renovation projects--but left the Carver and tech center projects out.

Now commissioners are saying they will revisit the issue early next month.

"It's a question of funding. It's not a question of need," said Raley, who was one of three commissioners who voted not to support an appeal of the tech center project.

Commissioner Joseph F. Anderson (D-Drayden) said he firmly supported the tech center project because it would offer job training. "We have to have the ability to educate and train a home-grown work force," he said.

Meanwhile, school board members said they hope the commissioners will change their minds so that they can appeal for funding of the two projects during the next round of appeals in late January.

"I think the commissioners have a tough job to deal with right now," said school board Chairman John K. Parlett Jr. "We're a growing community and we have many infrastructural needs. Education is certainly a high priority but we have to compete with the other needs of the community."