The American Film Institute has eliminated six or seven full-time staff positions in recent weeks, implementing a recommendation of the budget and executive committees at the last board meeting in March.

According to AFI director Jean Firstenberg, the personnel cuts are concentrated in two AFI departments, education services and public service programs. They presage a "restructuring" designed to consolidate the functions of at least four current programs while cutting the payroll. Though well under way, the changes await formal acknowledgment at a board meeting scheduled to begin today in Los Angeles.

The education services division, which maintains AFI contacts with the academic film community, has been reduced from four employes to a single "educational liaison." The public service division, which organizes AFI lectures, tours and seminars, will shrink from five staffers to three. Both departments will be subordinated under a new "Outreach" division, charged with overall responsibility for three additional AFI programs--the Directing Workshop for Women, the Independent Filmmaker Program and a distribution service for student films.

Formerly based in Washington, education services was transferred to AFI's Los Angeles offices about a year ago. Over the years the department has repeatedly expanded and contracted as AFI priorities shifted or budgets changed.

The public service program, currently based in the Washington office, will be transferred to Los Angeles under the Outreach reorganization. Betty Brown, director of the program here, has been offered another job as director of subscriptions for American Film magazine, one of the AFI operations unaffected by the board recommendations. She remains undecided about the offer. Meanwhile, staffer Ron Getz has agreed to manage the public service program in L.A. for the time being.

In addition, the jobs of director of theater programming and director of exhibition services will be merged in a new "Exhibition Division."

Perhaps the most befuddling aspect of the reorganization plan, at least as far as local AFI members are concerned, is the announcement that Mike Clark, the popular program director of the AFI Theater, will serve as acting director of the new division for six months while the Institute conducts nationwide interviews for the permanent directorship, a position that is to begin in January. Both Clark and Nancy Sher, whose job as director of exhibition services was eliminated, have been "invited" to apply for the new post, which will include programming responsibilities for a new auditorium at the Center for Advanced Film Studies in L.A.

Firstenberg defended the cuts, which may also include one slot at the television and video services department in L.A., as an unhappy but inescapable fiscal necessity. "I feel the cutbacks in the educational area most acutely, because of my own background in the academic world, but at certain times we have to determine priorities and try to be very realistic about what we can afford to do and what we're prepared to do most effectively. That now requires constant vigilance over the budget. Unfortunately, it's also obliged us to make some reductions in the work staff. I hate to hear them described as 'firings,' because to my way of thinking, if you fire somebody, you do it because you're not happy with what they're doing. We think an awful lot of these people, and as far as possible, we're trying to relocate them in other jobs with the Institute, but we've had to reduce the work force."

Firstenberg insisted that the RIFs were dictated by budget considerations, specifically the fear of a slight deficit in the current fiscal year being repeated in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. According to finance director Bruce Neiner, the motive was only partially financial. He expected the AFI, which operates on an annual budget of about $9.4 million (roughly 30 percent from the National Endowment for the Arts and the balance from AFI fund-raising activities), to "break even" in fiscal 1983 and anticipated that "a combination of RIFs and other revenue adjustments would put us in the black in the new fiscal year." Neiner said the "desire to reorganize programs to become more effective in the long run" determined the restructuring plan more than strict balance-sheet imperatives.

Firstenberg hoped some of the sting might be taken out of the reductions in the education division by announcing a renewed board commitment to reviving the dormant AFI catalogue project--a mammoth encyclopedic reference work on American movies left uncompleted after volumes devoted to the 1920s and '60s. She said the project would be continued under the supervision of Audrey Kupferberg at the Washington office and looked forward to completion a decade from now.