Children attending schools closer to home.

Up to 26 new schools to alleviate crowding. Renovations at 30 older buildings. Air conditioning in all schools. Fully certified teachers with higher salaries. Telephones and upgraded computers in every classroom. Vocational technology, in-school suspension and unique magnet programs at every high school. Expanded and improved special education programs.

That's just the beginning of the plan School Superintendent Iris T. Metts has outlined to overhaul the troubled 130,000-student Prince George's school system in the next five years.

After years of neglect led to a decline in physical conditions and morale in the county schools and after recent bickering among state and local officials over how to fix it, Metts and others believe that they are at a crucial moment in their improvement efforts.

The school system is phasing out 26 years of divisive court-ordered desegregation busing. The county and state have committed to an ambitious plan to build 13 to 26 new schools to help return students to schools in their neighborhoods.

The focus now, in a school system that is about 77 percent black and 13 percent white, is less on trying to create racial balance in the schools and more on trying to ensure equity in all 185 schools.

"You have to look at the total picture," Metts said. "You can't leave any kids out. You can't leave any community out. I've been listening to the public as much as possible. I need to combine what people want and what I know is doable. I think we're going to find solutions that please the parents."

The big question, however, is how the county will be able to afford the kinds of improvements that Metts wants. At $876 million, the school system's operating budget is about $200 million less than the budget for neighboring Montgomery County schools, even though both jurisdictions have about 130,000 students. That means Prince George's spends $6,585 per student each year, while Montgomery spends $8,287.

The county's voter-imposed property-tax cap has hurt efforts to fund the system's needs, such as teacher salary increases.

Although the state has committed at least $140 million in school construction funds over four years, most county leaders say it will cost much more to staff the schools and install equipment and renovate existing buildings.

But there is a sense of unity among the key players that may help overcome barriers.

With a new superintendent and a new school board chairman--James E. Henderson (Seabrook)--some state delegates from the county say they have a chance to put aside old grievances and come together to fight for more money from state coffers this spring in Annapolis.

"This is the first time I really recall that we've really been strongly committed together," said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Landover). "We have a reputation of being a fractious group. This year I see a wonderful coming together of the county's delegation, council and school board."

"The school system is at the golden moment," said County Council member Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie). "We have a wonderful opportunity, and we have to capitalize."

Metts has spent her first six months on the job compiling a five-year plan that she believes would put the system on target to meet her goal of becoming one of the top 10 school districts in Maryland. Currently, Prince George's County's average scores on state exams are second-lowest in the state, ahead of only Baltimore.

In addition to evaluating physical needs of buildings, she's looking at what academic pieces can be improved in terms of administrators, teachers and curriculum.

"I'm looking at leadership, who's in charge of schools," Metts said. "I want to strengthen programs and do evaluations for results. We're doing academic audits."

Although many county leaders and residents applaud Metts's vision, they warn that the danger is that the county will not be able to afford all the improvements and some schools will have more resources than others. But Metts said she's committed to looking at the big picture and to ensuring equity in spending.

"The problem has been that we've looked at it [in the past] as a school-by-school issue, rather than look at it as an entire-district issue," Metts said. "You've got this one window of opportunity. We ought to talk about the true needs and ought to come forward with a plan. I don't think we're going to have this chance again soon."

CAPTION: Students prepare to enter Highland Park Elementary School in Landover on first day of school in August. It reopened this school year after being closed 26 years.

CAPTION: Superintendent Iris T. Metts

CAPTION: Chairman James E. Henderson