The Prince George's County school board, forced to cut $37 million from its budget on two long nights last June, was fussing and fighting over who was baby and what was bath water among the programs of the nation's 13th-largest school system.

Before an overflow crowd of teachers, parents and students one night, board member Norman Saunders volunteered to cut support for the activities of the countywide student government associations. Melanie Goldsmith, the student board member chosen by the student governments, turned and silently sneered at Saunders from her seat at his left.

Board member Al Golato moved to delete $91,000 earmarked for a new ROTC program at Potomac High School.

"Are you aware of the fact that we already have 310 students registered for this program?" Saunders asked an irritated Golato.

Then Saunders proposed eliminating all interscholastic sports and all extracurricular activities for a savings of $1.4 million.

Saunders said it would save almost all of the 97 elementary teacher positions slated for elimination. Leslie Kreimer of Greenbelt seconded the motion, but Golato countered that athletics and some other programs "motivate, stimulate and, in many cases, become the glue for the education of some of our students." A majority of board members agreed with him.

"I don't believe their priorities," said one parent, storming out of the room when the Saunders motion failed 7 to 2.

"They wiped out reading teachers and kept the French club," complained Elizabeth Tippets of Adelphi.

Eventually, funding for sports activities at all levels was cut from $1.2 million to $868,000. Money for extracurricular activities such as the French clubs was cut by $50,000 to $184,000. But the question of priorities in the educational program is still being debated.

The issue is how to weigh school-sponsored activities that may mean everything to a relatively few students against programs that mean a little bit more for everyone.

"I have a problem with their funding interscholastic sports and extracurricular activities when we're laying off 500 teachers," said teachers union president John Sisson.

The teachers at Oxon Hill and Friendly high schools agree with Sisson's view. They have decided not to sponsor or support any extracurricular student activities this fall and are hoping that the movement will catch on at other schools.

Their decision is in part an expression of frustration at being asked to continue giving extra time to the school program when budget cuts are taking away new books, supplies and colleagues. It also is a protest tactic designed to shock parents.

"You've got to do something serious. If you don't, nobody will bat an eye," said PTA activist Bettie Whitt. The county council of PTAs also favors the elimination of athletics to save acedemics.

The original staff plan to cut out all elementary instrumental music instruction was a serious idea, too, but in the end the board could not eliminate an entire special interest program.

Elementary music has taken a 25 percent cut, but a recently adopted resolution will retain two instrumental classes a week for interested students.

As did the sports enthusiasts, music program supporters argued that playing an instrument often makes the difference between a student's success and failure in school.

"I've watched children who were disrespectful, destructive, become ladies and gentlemen through the discipline of music--no longer shy, no longer resentful," said Fran Phillips, president of the Kenmoor PTA.

Teaching is the kind of profession where the salvation of just one student makes all the difference in the world.

"I had a child at William Beanes elementary who was a total terror," recalled instrumental music teacher Judy Black. "He would say terrible things, racial things, you name it. After the second year, he joined the youth orchestra. After a year in the orchestra, he was actually telling kids that they should sit up straight and hold their violins on their knees--such a gentleman." Black, who was laid off this year, said she loved to reach such students through an instrumental instruction.

The music compromise will be managed by a slight cutback in vocal music offerings, affecting 51,000 students, and limiting instrumental classes to fifth and sixth graders, about 4,400 students.

For the most part, the school system will remain all things to all people next year, although the mixture has been watered down.

Some elementary children still will learn to read music, though all elementary pupils lost 25 percent of their reading teachers. Some 17,000 secondary students will be able to play interscholastic and intramural sports at a cost of $868,000. At the same time, all 56,000 secondary students lost 6 percent of their classroom teachers for a savings of $3 million.

Under pressure to approve cuts on the first two nights in June, the board was unable to decide whether the marginal value of an additional secondary teacher per thousand students was equal to 17,000 students with a little more time on their hands after school.

"I shudder to think about what will happen to Prince George's County after 3:30 with everybody on the street," said board member Castelli during the meeting last June.

"They've already hired more police to take care of it," said board member Kreimer, refering to County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan's widely publicized opinion that control of crime is more important to the taxpayers than education. Hogan added police officers and cut the school budget at the same time this year.

If the students of Prince George's had no soccer team or drama group to go to after school, many would find some other productive activity. Others would combat enforced idleness with still more television.

Only a relative handful would become a danger to themselves or their communities, but a majority of the board was simply not willing to take that chance.