Prince George's School Superintendent John A. Murphy was named one of three finalists for Kentucky's top education post yesterday and used the occasion to announce that he is actively looking for employment elsewhere.

"There is no question that I will be leaving, whether it is Kentucky or somewhere else," Murphy said in an interview yesterday. "It is a foregone conclusion that I will leave Prince George's soon. It is just a matter of making the right match."

Murphy, who last spring gave up a lucrative 10-year contract offer after it created a controversy in the county, publicly has been assuring residents that he plans to fulfill the final 18 months of his contract. But the superintendent has been quietly interviewing for the Kentucky state post and "two or three" other positions that he would not identify.

Education consultants who asked not to be identified said Murphy also is being considered for the top post in the Boston public school system.

Murphy said he did not make his job search public because "it was critical to keep the school system moving in the right direction."

"We couldn't let things fall apart, even though I knew it was probably time for me to leave. I think I have outstayed my welcome here," he said.

When Murphy's name surfaced in a national search for Miami's top school post in February, County Executive Parris N. Glendening urged school officials to give the superintendent a $45,000 raise, to $150,000 a year, and extend his contract until the year 2000 if he agreed to withdraw from the competition in Miami and refrain from interviewing for other jobs.

Glendening and all but one of the nine school board members said Murphy's departure could derail school system improvements and hamper the county's efforts to use education as a magnet to attract businesses and residents.

But the employment package created a community uproar over the cost and length of the contract. It also was criticized by some black leaders, who were furious with Glendening and the board for drawing up the proposal without seeking their advice.

Murphy, who had been widely credited with turning around a beleaguered school system, quickly pulled out of the contract and vowed to begin looking for a new job. But after a brief period of uncharacteristic reclusion, Murphy emerged a few weeks later and said he would fulfill the final two years of his contract.

Yesterday, Murphy said that events over the past six months have left him feeling "less than appreciated," including a teachers union survey that gave his leadership a C grade and widespread criticism over his recommendation that a Bowie High School teacher be fired for failing to catch racial slurs and obscene remarks in the 1990 yearbook.

What stung Murphy most was that the loudest criticism of the contract proposal and his leadership ability came from members of the black community, even though he had built a national reputation for creating programs aimed at increasing minority achievement.

"There are places where my talents could be better used and appreciated," Murphy said yesterday. "When I leave Prince George's County, it is going to be a very, very sad day for me."

Board of Education Chairman Doris A. Eugene said the board feels there is little it can do to encourage Murphy to stay. "Our last attempts sort of blew up in our face and his, so we are kind of gun-shy now," Eugene said. "It is all so very depressing."

Murphy, whose name has popped up in searches to fill several school leadership posts since he arrived in Prince George's in 1984, said he is particularly excited about the Kentucky commissioner of education post.

The commissioner's job is a new post created under the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which calls for a radical restructuring of the state's school system and elimination of the current school superintendent's position, which was filled through statewide elections. The commissioner will have to devise a funding formula that creates a minimum spending level of $2,900 for each of Kentucky's 570,000 students. Per-pupil spending varied from $1,800 to $4,200 under the existing plan. That discrepancy prompted a lawsuit that led to the reform act.

In addition to Murphy, the other finalists for the Kentucky post are Thomas C. Boysen, head of the San Diego County school system, and William Leary, who heads the Gloucester, Mass., school system and formerly headed the Boston and Broward County, Fla., school systems.

The three finalists were selected from a pool of 123 nominees, said William McAnulty, a lawyer who heads the Education Management Selection Commission, a group appointed by Kentucky Gov. Wallace Wilkinson and state legislators to oversee the job search. McAnulty would not discuss Murphy's particular qualifications for the post and instead described all three candidates as "innovative and energetic leaders in education."

The Kentucky committee will make a final decision by Nov. 16, McAnulty said. The commissioner's salary, which will be set by the committee, is still under negotiation, although McAnulty said it would be in excess of $100,000 a year.