It was a noble experiment in cooperation: four county governments and the governor's ofice, three state agencies and the Prince George's Board of Education. For six years it provided intensive treatment in a classroom setting for 80 emotionally disturbed children.

But this week the Cheltenham Center in southern Prince George's seemed fated to die. The cooperative agreement that held it together was rife with interagency disputes. At a board meeting this evening, Board of Education Chairman Jo Ann Bell, who is also chairman of Cheltenham's board of directors, will introduce an emergency resolution calling for the school system to serve the required 180-day notice that it will withdraw from the project.

The resolution is expected to pass unanimously, Bell said, and the school board will set up a task force to find a new location for the educational day treatment it provided. Until the services provided by the new educational center become clear, said Sanford M. Bienen, the health department's assistant director for Southern Maryland, a private agency will be contracted to continue both residential and day treatment.

The educational program is the heart of the Cheltenham experiment. Small classes and individual attention help the students, who are normal or above normal in intelligence, learn to cope in a school environment. A team of psychologists is on hand to help when needed. There are 60 day students and 20 residents. Without the educational program provided by the Prince George's school system, there will be little reason for the residents to stay.

Bell's main adversary has been the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Their disagreement climaxed this July, when the state agency gave Cheltenham only half of $1.8 million that had been appropriated for its annual grant and attached four conditions.

Bothered by all of them, Bell and Cheltenham administrators were most concerned by the first, that the center must make room for at least five youths ordered there by the courts or lose its grant and have its operation contracted out to a private agency.

"We were given an ultimatum and we were not able to reach that ultimatum," Bell said. "So we're pulling out." Cheltenham Director Henry T. Gromada agreed: "There's no way the school system can -- or should -- meet those demands," he said.

Gromada said five extra beds would be too heavy a burden on a facility already underfunded, understaffed and housed in inadequate facilities. The tougher cases would put too much demand on the center's administration, the mental health staff would be pulled away from normal tasks, and both residential and educational programs would suffer, he said.

He acknowledged the need for a facility for court-ordered children, but said Cheltenham, as it is now organized, is not the place. Taking children from the courts, he said, would change an institution that strove to be open, to maintain a school atmosphere as nearly as possible, into a "locked facility."

The Cheltenham Center is housed in the old Boys Village of Maryland, and Gromada said it is already difficult to overcome the stigma of being located in a former detention center.

But the present dispute is just the dying stage of a cooperation that has been ailing since Cheltenham opened in January 1976. Bell and Gromada say they were betrayed by the state, that promises were broken. Among their complaints:

The original agreement stated that no new facilities would move to the Cheltenham campus. Within a year, Maryland's Juvenile Services Department had placed more detainees in their cottages on the property, and a facility was added for mentally retarded youths whom the court system had ordered detained.

It was agreed that Cheltenham's board of directors would be consulted on changes in the campus area. Bell and Gromada say this consultation has not occurred. A Southern Maryland Health Systems Agency (SMHSA) report recommending an expanded, relocated Cheltenham, and establishment of a similar center for Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties was ignored, they say. Cheltenham holds 20 children from the tri-county area and is still at its original location. Mary Zieha, of the agency, says she is now developing a "request for proposal," in the hope that somebody, somewhere, will take up its recommendations.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, after announcing its support for the health systems agency's recommendations in August 1980, testified against a bond issue that would have paid for the new centers.

The health department has supported new, expensive campuses in Montgomery and Baltimore (called RICA I and RICA II), based on the same concept, but failed to lend similar assistance to the original "pilot demonstration program" at Cheltenham.

Sanford Bienen, assistant health department director for Southern Maryland and one of Cheltenham's three original organizers, is now at odds with the center he helped create.

"Our position is we're not taking an additional five kids," he said. "We're asking the Cheltenham Center to use five of its existing residential spots to program for a type of adolescent who, in the course of their emotional disturbance, at one time or another are brought to the attention of the courts.

"I don't think there's any doubt that programming for five kids that come through that type of referral would have required the program be reshaped," he added. Although the health department offered no more money to pay for reshaped programs, he said, some existing programs could be cut to allow for them.

He said that the department contributed two-thirds of the center's overall budget (the schools pay for most of the educational program) and was being denied the right to say who uses five beds. "All we were asking for was to control five beds," he said.

"I think it may be more sensible at this point to try to expand the capacity of services at the existing Cheltenham location, and to work with all the affected counties in the development of alternate services, including group homes and expanded outpatient services for adolescents," he said. "Given the fiscal constraints, that's a more realistic way to go at this point."

Bienen agreed there was "a difference of opinion" over the wording of the original Cheltenham agreement, but said he preferred not to comment on whether or not promises had been broken. He said the health department reversed its original support for the health systems agency recommendations when lack of funds forced it to realign priorities. Zieha said the agency estimated in 1979 that it would cost $6 million to build the two new centers.

Despite disagreements with the school system, Bienen said its withdrawal is "certainly bad news in the sense that a program that was really effective in working with kids, and was born of a kind of wish to stimulate interagency cooperation, is now going to be lost. That part is sad."

Richard Dunn, a private activist who was director of Coordination of Services to the Handicapped for the state until February of this year, worked with Bienen in founding Cheltenham and was its first board chairman. He put most of the blame for the center's problems on the health department.

He cited the same "broken promises" listed by Bell and Gromada. "They have done everything to undermine the integrity of the project," he said. From the beginning, the department "allowed the erosion of the concept," he said. "One state department was dictating to everyone else what happened."

The spirit of cooperation, he said, "was the most exciting thing, and it was the first in the state. Four county governments, three major state departments and the governor of the state . . . ."

Three years ago the American Medical Association flew him to San Diego to address the group on the success of the cooperative venture. In retrospect, Dunn said, "they wasted their money."