About 100 Prince George's citizens turned out last night for the first of three public hearings on the proposed $317.5 million county school budget, compared to more than 300 last year, and most left the school system's southern area office in Oxon Hill early.

Last year, as the first step in the complicated school budget process, there was a $337 million budget on the table and the question of full funding for a negotiated teachers' contract to argue about. That budget was eventually cut $31 million by the County Council. Last night, some observers speculated that the public may have learned that the real business of determining the budget comes later on.

"Everyone knows that politically it makes more sense to come out for the County Council hearings," said one school official about the hearings that the council will hold in April.

School Superintendent Edward J. Feeney's proposed budget is up $11 million from last year despite an expected decline of 3,800 students, the closing of 10 more schools and a reduction of 358 employes. Cuts in athletics, textbooks and long-deferred maintenance would be restored, and salary costs, not including a cost-of-living increase currently under negotiation with county teachers, account for the majority of the increase.

"Basically I think there is so little change in the budget from last year that it doesn't stimulate as much interest," said board chairman Susan Bieniasz.

"You know when they're going to come out?" asked board member Doris Eugene: "In June, after things have been cut, when the barn door is closed. Then they're going to come and yell at us because there's not enough in the barn."

Almost half of the 29 speakers at the meeting were school library "media teachers," speaking on behalf of the instructional media aides that assist them. Those aides were almost eliminated last year and the librarians fear more cuts are coming.

Bettie Witt, a longtime PTA activist, listed a number of deficiences she said should be made up, including school bus transportation cutbacks that have increased walking distance for thousands of students.

"Class sizes are growing in our schools," Witt said. "Many of our classrooms simply do not have room for any more desks."

Bieniasz predicted a large turnout for next Monday's hearing at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in politically active Greenbelt. Another hearing is set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Largo High School in Largo. $130;Picutre 1, Bettie Witt, president of the Francis Scott Key Middle School PTA, asks Prince George's school board to restore service cutbacks.; Picture 2, School Superintendent Edward Feeney, author of the budget.; Picture 3, School board chairman Susan Bieniasz opens public hearing. Photos by Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post