The Prince George's school board last week gave final approval to a plan that will shorten or eliminate the bus rides of nearly a quarter of the county's elementary school students who are now being bused for purposes of desegregation.

While the high political and emotional stakes were no less evident this time around, the board did something it had not been able to do in past years -- find a plan upon which a majority could agree.

Some observers argue that the board failed in the past because nearly all of the proposals raised the specter of school closings and called for more radical change than board members believed could be defended in court.

Most members believe the plan they have now approved, by a vote of 8-to-1, will withstand legal challenges.

The new plan, presented by a board-appointed citizens advisory committee, was put together by the superintendent's staff and the board attorney. It will shorten or eliminate the bus rides of approximately 3,610 of the 16,000 elementary school pupils now being bused for purposes of desegregation.

Under the new plan, about 1,440 elementary school students who now take long rides to distant schools will be able to walk to nearby neighborhood schools. The remaining 2,170 will be able to take shorter bus rides to schools nearer their homes.

While the plan does not create a neighborhood school system or take as many children off buses as some parents had wanted, it does deal with the controversial issue of cross-busing -- the busing of children from integrated neighborhoods to schools in integrated communities far across the county, or from one-race neighborhoods to one-race schools far away. Cross-busing, the result of the changing demographic make-up of neighborhoods, was pointed to as the best example of unnecessary busing.

While some cross-busing will continue, it is eliminated in cases where the modifcations would not dramatically affect racial ratios in the schools. As a result, the racial make-up of the schools affected by the plan changed an average of only 5 to 10 percent.

Ironically, 70 percent of the children affected by last week's action are black even though the complaints that led to a reduction in busing came from the white community.

The county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is already on record as opposing the plan because spokesmen say that it will spark a resegregation of the public school system. As a result, the group plans to take legal action in a few weeks in an effort to kill the plan.

School board attorney Paul Nussbaum believes the busing plan can be successfully defended in court because it affects a limited number of students and has little impact on the racial percentages in the schools.

"I can't believe anyone would go to court over this kind of a situation," said Nussbaum. "We're talking about moving 4,000 children in a school system that has a student population of 127,000.

Prince George's NAACP President Josie Bass disagrees.

"I think it's a piecemeal approach to dealing with a complex problem," said Bass. "It's nothing but a smokescreen that uses busing as a pretext for closing schools. The board hasn't dealt with any of the issues that affect the delivery of education -- how you educate children."

Whatever court fights take shape, many parents are expected to receive notices from the school system soon, assigning their children to new schools next year.