ST. MICHAELS, MD., OCT. 24 -- A sharply divided Talbot County school board rejected a proposal today for nurses to distribute condoms without parental consent in the high schools of this rural Eastern Shore community.

The 4 to 3 vote ended, for the time being at least, an emotionally charged controversy that propelled the county into the forefront of a national debate about teenage sexuality, pregnancy and "safe sex" in the age of AIDS.

"It's dead for the moment," said John Ryan, the county public health officer who proposed the measure to stop the spread of sexually transmitted disease and to prevent teenage pregnancy. "But the problem is not going to go away, so I'm not going to go away. At some point, we're going to have to raise the issue again."

Laura Harrison, a registered nurse and the school board president who broke a 3 to 3 tie to defeat the proposal, called it "a very close issue. I would like to see it become a community issue and not just a school issue."

Talbot has two high schools with 1,014 students in a county of 30,000 residents, many of whom are well-to-do but some of whom live in poverty.

In the year ending April 30, one-third of the 200 people seen for venereal disease by the county Health Department were teenagers.

A 1987-89 Johns Hopkins University study in the county showed that nearly 21 percent of the students in eighth grade were having sex, a percentage that rose to 36.5 percent by 10th grade.

Had the vote gone the other way, Talbot would have been among the first school systems in the country to distribute birth control in its schools.

Relying on a state law that gives minors access to treatment without parental consent in certain health matters, city clinics at seven Baltimore schools have been dispensing condoms and birth-control pills for about a month. The New York City school chancellor has said he favors the idea, and Washington mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon has advocated similar action.

Talbot County held two heated public hearings on the subject. Today's board meeting echoed most of the arguments made earlier. There were expressions of concern for the health of teenagers and a demand for stricter morality and for the teaching of abstinence.

"I'm a high school teacher and I'm a Christian," said Heather Crow, who had come to talk about her art students but wound up discussing condoms as well. She strongly opposed the proposal.

"The issue goes right to the very basis of our social order," said board member F. Hooper Bond, who said the proposal "seems to be encouraging {students} to regard each other as sex objects." He voted against it.

Harrison said handing out condoms to students deemed sexually active would send a mixed message to the majority that aren't. She also noted that condoms are not 100 percent effective.

Susan Dillon, the board member who moved for the program's adoption, asked, "If we hesitate to confront this now, how responsible are we being?"

As the board voted in the St. Michaels High School cafeteria, school let out, and there was no shortage of student opinion. Most said they were disappointed with the decision.

"A lot are scared to buy {condoms} in the grocery store," said Cristin Sheehan, 17. "That {vote} means they're not going to use them."

Agreed Chris Brennick, 16, "I think it was pretty dumb of them personally, with the spread of diseases and teenage pregnancies."

Said Diana Callaway, the school's principal, "I was hoping we would be able to protect the health and safety of our students. I'm afraid what's going to happen is we'll have a student die of AIDS when it could have been prevented."