The publicity department of the Prince George's County school system had a big announcement Wednesday: Robert Slade, the third-highest-ranking school official during the past four years, was planning to retire now that a new superintendent has taken over.

But 30 minutes later, Slade called reporters and said he wasn't going anywhere. That was followed by a second call from the publicity staff: Never mind; we goofed.

As Superintendent Iris T. Metts brings swift change to the troubled 128,000-student system after taking the reins July 1 from Jerome Clark, signs of a difficult transition and wounded feelings have begun to surface.

Metts, who was Delaware's education secretary, has said she intends to eliminate 150 central office positions and possibly send some administrators back to schools to serve as principals or teachers. And she has told the Board of Education that she wants to hire four out-of-state consultants as top deputies, raising some eyebrows about the lack of system veterans on her list.

Linda Waples, president of the union of principals and administrators, said she understands Metts's desire to be more efficient. But Waples said there is concern about the proposal to move some central office staff back to individual schools.

"It's part of what she has to do to get this mess straightened out. And that's what it is: a mess," Waples said. "But she can't just move people. . . . Putting them into the classroom is a demotion, which we'd have to take up with the union."

In an interview this week, Metts acknowledged that her arrival has caused a sense of unease in the system and said she is concerned about central office morale. She intends to write employees a letter, she said, explaining her vision and goals.

"I don't want to appear cold and insensitive," she said. "I want to sit down and talk with the individuals."

But if employees are shocked at her fast pace, she said, that's because they are not used to one--and the system needs one.

"The speed at which I'm moving to make change is something that a lot of people here are not accustomed to," Metts said. "My management style is much like it works in the business world. I want to be efficient and effective."

But she also wants employees to know, she said, "that I'm listening and not just coming to uninformed decisions."

She already has talked with Slade, who said yesterday that he does intend to retire in September and was merely waiting to make the announcement on his terms. Although Metts offered him another position in the system, Slade said he thought it was better to move aside, as did Clark's other top deputy, Louise Waynant, who retired July 1.

"Any new superintendent ought to have the opportunity to select and bring in his or her own team," said Slade, a 30-year veteran of the system who oversaw all non-classroom issues.

School board members, while acknowledging the service of Clark and his senior advisers, said the housecleaning is a necessary step toward improving a school system that ranks second-worst in the state on standardized exams and has the highest percentage of provisionally certified teachers. The county also must cope with a high proportion of low-income students, an increasing number of immigrants who have weak English skills, and a smaller budget than in systems of similar size.

A new staff made up primarily of outsiders will be quick to order major changes because it will not fear offending friends, some board members said.

"Any time you have someone in the system for a long time, they develop friends and allegiances, and that's automatically a problem. The perception is that the system is full of [patronage] jobs," said school board member Robert J. Callahan (Bowie). "Based on the recommendations [Metts] has made about what she's looking to do, the board is very happy about the changes."

Metts said she does intend to keep at least one insider among her top advisers--Howard Burnett, who had been Waynant's assistant--in order to maintain some institutional memory at the top. As for the six division administrators under Clark, the heads of the personnel and communications departments already have resigned. Metts said she has spoken with the other four about their roles, which may change when she brings on her own advisers.

Slade said the previous administration was hamstrung by the heavy-handedness of county and state officials, who were increasingly skeptical of Clark's staff and in the past year ordered an audit and created a management oversight panel.

"Those obstacles--and I saw them as obstacles--made it difficult for us and would make it difficult for any superintendent who did not have collaboration," Slade said.