A contentious policy on how much private groups can give to improve Montgomery County public schools has passed after more than a year of debate that exposed the fault lines between have and have-not communities.

The Montgomery County school board last week approved the policy, 6 to 1, for the first time specifying the amount that parents, organizations, businesses and municipalities can contribute toward building enhancements and improvements, equipment and landscaping. Board President Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County) cast the opposing vote.

"Before now, almost anybody could do almost anything, because there was no policy," said board Vice President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "The initial policy we proposed last year was very controversial. People were very emotional. This is a good compromise. It doesn't close the door to donating; it establishes ground rules."

The original policy was vague and left the impression that entire wings could be donated, officials said. "People initially thought the policy opened the door to building private schools in some parts of the county," said Richard Hawes, who heads the system's facilities department.

The board office was flooded with calls, e-mails and letters. Many residents worried about equity, fearing that communities with more means would be able to ensure their children a superior education. Those on the other side of the issue argued that allowing monetary donations would forge stronger community bonds, which is critical in fostering high-performing schools.

The camps divided geographically between the county's eastern side, where neighborhoods have more diverse populations and high-poverty schools, and those in the more affluent western sections.

The previous policy had prohibited outsiders from paying for teachers' salaries, textbooks or anything that would make the educational experience at one school different from that of another school. But there had been no guidelines for physical improvements, and for years some PTAs had raised money for playground equipment.

Other communities provided much more, such as the $250,000 in enhancements that Chevy Chase Elementary's supporters funded as the 1930s building underwent renovation. Parents at Somerset Elementary and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High formed nonprofit foundations to underwrite computer equipment and science labs, while those at Wood Acres Elementary raised $180,000 for landscaping, a compass rose floor design and higher-grade roofing material to better blend with the slate roofs of nearby homes.

It was the Wood Acres project that finally forced the issue into the public arena. The board held three community meetings over the summer and in August announced the compromise proposal that passed Thursday.

The policy allows private groups to donate money for playground equipment, stadium lighting, theatrical equipment and landscaping. Municipalities can raise money for bigger gyms than the county usually constructs at elementary schools -- but only if the gym will be available to the community at large.

Projects that will cost more than $50,000 must be reviewed and voted on by the board; staff members can sign off on less costly improvements and enhancements. Both sides expressed support for that threshold, an accommodation between the first proposal's $25,000 trigger and the $100,000 that some people wanted.

On Nov. 12, in a confusing series of votes, the policy did not receive the constitutionally required five votes. Board member Nancy J. King (Upcounty), who soon will join the General Assembly, asked that it be reconsidered Thursday during a review of the Capital Improvements Budget.

"The tighter the budget gets, the more we're going to want to see communities purchasing things for the school," she said.

Einstein High School cluster coordinators, who initially opposed the policy, supported the compromise. "Inequities will always exist in an area where some schools can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for architectural enhancements," they wrote in a letter. "But, in the end, we hope that it really is more important to be good rather than to look good."