After several years of sluggish economic conditions and painful budget cuts, Howard County school officials are planning to revamp the district's budget process.

During a Board of Education meeting last week, the schools chief operating officer, Raymond Brown, said the process had grown stale, and he announced plans to adopt a version of zero-based budgeting.

Under the new system, each department would have to justify all its expenses and explain how they relate to the school system's comprehensive plan to boost student performance. Departments also would have to show how they would be affected by hypothetical scenarios, such as a 10 percent budget cut or a similar increase.

"It gets away from the entitlement mentality in the budget process," Brown said.

The move is the latest attempt by the school system to improve financial management. The district has presented school board members and county officials with especially high capital and operating budgets for the past several years. Last year, for example, school officials initially requested a capital budget of nearly $150 million. They ultimately received about $95 million, out of a total countywide capital budget of $170 million.

School officials' operating budget request for last year also set a new high of $480 million, even though it initially left out money to begin phasing in full-day kindergarten, which state law will require at all elementary schools by 2007. The school board eventually added money for those classes but slashed about $20 million in other areas.

The school system's business office has also faced administrative turmoil. Last year, then-Superintendent John O'Rourke fired Bruce Venter, the chief business officer, just as the school system began compiling its capital and operating budgets. No replacement was named for nine months.

Venter is still seeking compensation for his termination. Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin named Brown to take over Venter's duties.

Brown said the new budgeting process would help the school system avoid unrealistic requests and set priorities. He acknowledged that it would also require more time and work by school staff members.

The school system is spending more than $300,000 this year to update its accounting and payroll systems. School board members also have approved an additional $40,000 to begin auditing the system's finances.