The School Board on Thursday unanimously endorsed a six-year, $664 million capital improvements program that includes 23 new schools and increases the capacity of a new high school proposed for Seneca Ridge. The CIP also reaffirms support for an addition to the North Street administrative offices, although voters in November defeated a ballot referendum for a bond issue to pay for it.

In addition, the board approved a $245 million operating budget for 2000, confirming a straw vote taken earlier in the week on the spending plan proposed by School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III.

The funding requests now head to the Board of Supervisors, which decides how much money the School Board can spend but does not dictate how it is used.

The School Board tinkered with the first year of the CIP, when an estimated $113.8 million in new projects are planned. Board members expanded the Seneca Ridge high school, which is due to open in 2003, from a maximum of 1,350 students to 1,600 and reduced the size of an elementary school planned for Forest Ridge by six classrooms.

Board members John A. Andrews II (Broad Run) and Geary M. Higgins (Catoctin) made a motion to defer the $5.5 million North Street expansion for one year while alternative proposals were researched. After much discussion, the motion failed, so the project will be included on next year's list of priorities.

Most board members said they strongly believe that administrators have long outgrown the converted school building. "I don't doubt that there's a need and the need is real," Higgins said.

Voters defeated the expansion plan. Some school officials said it was unfair to ask the voters to finance the same project a year after they rejected it.

"I'm very sensitive to what occurred on the ballot," Andrews said. "The need is there, but I think we need to develop something else."

Board member J. Warren Geurin (Sterling) said that "we have a lot of needs, and classroom space is number one."

Hatrick told the board that delaying the North Street project--or deleting it from the improvements program altogether--would give an erroneous signal that it is unnecessary. He said county officials told him that "if we moved North Street from the CIP, it is tantamount to saying that the need doesn't exist."

"The longer we put the project off, the more expensive it's going to be," he said. "You're not going to find a cheaper way than adding onto this building."

Hatrick also reminded the nine board members--six of whom are just two weeks into their first term--that including a project on the CIP does not necessarily mean that supervisors will include it on a ballot referendum. Other taxes or user fees, or even cash, could be used, he said.

Andrews rallied other members to support increasing the capacity of the new high school in Seneca Ridge, even though the expansion would add nearly $3 million to the $39.8 million price tag. He said a bigger building would be more cost-effective and eventually would be needed.

All other new high schools proposed for the next six years will be built for 1,600 students, but school administrators have said that development trends in Seneca Ridge indicate that a larger school is unwarranted.

School Board Vice Chairman Harry F. Holsinger (Blue Ridge) and Candyce P. Cassell (Sugarland Run) voted against increasing the school's capacity.

"We've focused in some of our discussions on how to cut our budget," Holsinger said. "If projections indicate we don't need the capacity--it's nice to have the space--but is the extra three million bucks something we can afford? I just don't think I can support this."

The current five high schools have capacities ranging from 1,380 to 1,600 students.

The operating budget request approved Thursday includes a $17.6 million raise and a longer calendar for teachers and no new instructional programs.