THE FIRST SHOT in this year's battle over the budget for the Howard County Board of Education was fired with the release last week of Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed $293 million spending plan. Given Howard County's continued population growth, an increase in the school system's request was expected. But the 7.4 percent bump -- not including salary increases -- that Dr. Hickey is requesting could be unrealistic given economic uncertainties. The county last month announced a revenue surplus that is nearly $12 million more than the $16 million it had budgeted. But the economy is changing. Capital gains that in recent years have increased income tax collections are now expected to decline. The additional $20 million that Dr. Hickey has asked for likely won't be available. Other departments have needs that must be met as well. New County Executive James N. Robey must carefully assess the economic situation against various needs as he builds his first budget. If Mr. Robey can make a strong case for his spending priorities, the County Council may not have to choose sides over school funding. That would be far better than a repeat of last year's protests by sign-waving children and parents who contended that then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker had unfairly shortchanged the school system. Mr. Robey and the council can avoid some of the rancor -- and should -- by meeting with Dr. Hickey and the school board frequently in the four months that lead to a final vote on the county budget. The process is just beginning. The school board, for one, still has to review Dr. Hickey's proposal. Mr. Robey and the council will get their shots at it, too. The goal for all should be the same -- a good education for Howard County's children.