As county and state leaders began to digest the five-year school improvement plan that new Superintendent Iris T. Metts offered last week, one question kept popping into their thoughts and discussions: It's a great plan, but how are we going to pay for it?

Metts is asking for a $126 million operating budget increase for the next school year, pushing the total budget to more than $1 billion for the first time. And she said it will take another $2.9 billion to build 26 new schools, renovate dozens more and eliminate of the system's 410 classroom trailers.

Metts also offered an ambitious academic plan to intensify instruction of very young pupils in basic skills such as math, language arts and writing. And, Metts said, if her proposals are fully funded by county and state leaders, she would double the number of students who pass a high-stakes state exam and raise the county's Scholastic Assessment Test average 211 points in five years.

By promising specific results, Metts said, she is hoping to win support for her plans from county and state officials as well as county residents.

"If we can't show academic progress in this system, we're not going to get a lot [of money]. It is ambitious, but I've been in the business long enough to know we can do it," said Metts, who called her plan Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST). "It's so very important for the public to have something specific to look at and say, 'Here is the dollar amount,' and 'What are we going to get for that dollar amount?' I was trying to draw an analogy between the quantity of our budget and the quality of improvement we needed in the school system."

County and state leaders, while praising Metts for developing a top-flight, comprehensive school improvement plan, said that it would be virtually impossible to fund it without significantly more help from the state.

The state has committed at least $150 million over four years for school construction, to be matched by county funds. But county leaders say it's difficult to raise enough money for schools because of a voter-imposed tax cap, known as TRIM, which limits taxes to $2.40 per $100 of assessed value.

County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) praised Metts's plan but said: "I will not spend money that we don't have. We will not become financial charlatans, creating promises for gains we can't fulfill."

Other county and state leaders said they will fight for a large share of Maryland's anticipated $4.4 billion tobacco settlement and the state's $1 billion surplus.

"We have to come together in a unified way to go to the state and get them to do more," said County Council Vice Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). "I'm grounded in the realism of our tremendous needs and limited resources. On the other hand, this has set a clear goal that I believe can help raise our expectations."

Metts remained positive. "Superintendents have to be optimistic," she said at her news conference last week in Landover. "I have the dreams; you have the money to make it reality," she told county leaders and state delegates.

Metts acknowledged that county leaders would have to be creative to fund her plans. She endorsed a bill offered by Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Bowie), which would charge developers a flat fee of $7,000 for each new building unit to help fund school construction.

Although the County Council has opposed the bill on the grounds that it would allow unmanaged development, Hubbard says his measure would significantly increase the amount of money available for school construction. Metts agreed, saying it would raise about $19 million a year, allowing the county to sell $350 million to $400 million in construction bonds.

"If the state would match that at 60 percent, we'd get our first billion," Metts said.

Hubbard praised Metts for presenting county leaders and residents with a plan that spells out the costs of academic improvements, such as operating funds for more teachers to reduce class size and construction money for more classrooms for special education.

Thus, Hubbard said, the "general public will be able to visualize this integration much better than they could a piecemeal budget. . . . When she makes these goals, I think she's saying, 'To take the system to the next stages, we're going to have to talk about the funding sources.' That's very wise."

Hubbard said he thinks that Metts's plan could provoke new discussion of TRIM, though she carefully avoided any suggestion that the tax cap might impede her plan.

"I made a commitment not to get into the debate on TRIM. That discussion will come later. My job is to give the board a budget of what we need in this district. That will be a political argument," she said.

Meanwhile, school board members began contemplating some of the significant instructional changes Metts proposed, including all-day kindergarten for every elementary school, smaller class sizes and longer class periods for kindergarten through third grades, more high school magnet programs and two Montessori schools for kindergarten through eighth grades.

Much of the plan is focused on ensuring that kindergartners through third-graders receive a solid foundation in fundamental skills.

Board member Doyle L. Niemann (Mount Rainier) said he was unsure whether the board would approve giving students a choice of high schools by offering different academic programs at each.

"I took it as something she's thinking about. The practical difficulties [in terms of busing] are significant," he said.

Most officials gave Metts high marks for putting her academic goals in writing.

"The danger in being specific is that it can set you up for failure," Shapiro said. "Of course, the flip side is that it shows tremendous courage and commitment from the superintendent. It is ambitious and inspiring. Good for her, saying 'I think this is what I can produce.' "

Staff writer Tracey A. Reeves contributed to this report.

HIGHLIGHTS OF FIVE-YEAR PLAN

Prince George's School Superintendent Iris T. Metts offered a five-year plan for academics, construction and technology. Here are highlights:

ACADEMIC PLAN:

* Implement full-day kindergarten classes in all elementary schools.

* Reduce student to teacher ratios in kindergarten through third-grade classes to 22 to 1 in reading/language arts and math; within five years reduce the ratio to 15 to 1.

* Extend day and year programs to help at-risk students in kindergarten through third grade. Monitor pre-kindergarten students by expanding of Head Start and Extended Elementary Education Program.

* Reconfigure middle schools to have grades six through eight (rather than current seven and eight).

* Explore opportunities to offer parents and students Choice High Schools, including theme-based programs such as JROTC, Sci-Tech, Academy of Finance and Academy of Tourism.

* Replicate successful magnet programs, including the creation of two Montessori schools for kindergarten through eighth grade.

* Emphasize systemwide focus on reading, writing and math in kindergarten through eighth grade. Have uninterrupted blocks of 120 minutes per day in language arts in kindergarten through third grade and 90-minute blocks in fourth through eighth grades, along with 60-minute blocks of math.

* Install Reading Recovery, extra instruction for students reading below grade level, in all elementary schools.

* Encourage more students to take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

* Decrease the number of special education students designated for nonpublic placement by 10 percent each year.

* Decrease the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students and their white counterparts.

* Create in-school suspension programs at all high schools and middle schools.

* Create two alternative high schools for students with discipline problems.

* Hire an additional 30 mentor-teachers to help guide new teachers.

* Recruit 10,000 mentors.

SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION PLAN:

* Build 26 schools.

* Renovate all schools older than 15 years.

* Create 1,769 new classrooms by the 2004-05 school year to meet enrollment of 137,282 students and 1,500 pre-kindergarten students.

* Build new auditoriums, gymnasiums and multipurpose rooms at all high schools that do not have them.

* Renovate seven buildings that house central office staff: Ager Road Building, Bonnie Johns Media Center, Facilities Administration Building, John Hanson Building, Oxon Hill Staff Development Center, Sasscer Administration Building and Thomas Addison Building.

* Consolidate school-bus lots to improve efficiency.

TECHNOLOGY PLAN:

* Install telephones in every classroom.

* Upgrade central office technology, creating integrated data system for human resources, budget and finance, transportation, payroll and pupil accounting and boundaries.

* Reduce computer to student ratio to 5 to 1 (currently it is 11 to 1).

* Media center upgrades: 10 computers in each media center and six in each classroom for kindergarten through fifth grade; 10 computers in each media center and 10 in each classroom for middle schools; 20 computers in each media center and 15 in each classroom for high schools.

* Augment teacher technology training.

* Buy 5,000 calculators for student use.

SOURCE: Prince George's County Public Schools.

CAPTION: Iris T. Metts seeks an increase of $126 million for the school budget and pledges to double the passing rate of a state exam.