The voters of Massachusetts weren't aware of it at the time, but when they went to the polls last Nov. 4 they were taking a step that could send coach Bill Allen from the playing fields of Madison Park High School to the cafes of Paris.

That was the day the eletorate overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition 2 1/2, a stringent limitation on local property taxes that will cost 351 Massachusetts cities and towns $450 million in revenues in the coming fiscal year unless the state legislature steps in to help.

As a result of that, Bill Allen, a veteran of 10 years of coaching an inner city varsity football team in the Boston public schools, has received his dismissal notice.

Allen is still hoping for a miracle. The playing fields of Madison Park are where he feels he belongs and where he is needed, but as the days go by the thought is sinking in that maybe this is for real. And so he has been thinking that maybe he will just chuck it all and go to Paris.

Allen is not alone. Because of Proposition 2 1/2, polic stations, firehouses, and hundreds of schools are earmarked for closing. Harvard professors living in Cambridge will have to do with less garbage collection and thousands of public service jobs are being eliminated.

And the citizens of Massachusetts unexpectedly find themselves on the front line of what is shaping up as the economic battlewground of the 1980s.

In earlier times, a taxpayers' initiative such as Proposition 2 1/2 would have been quickly offset by federal or state aid. But under the emerging "Reaganomics," the federal government is sharply reducing its aid to schools, colleges, the handicapped, the old, and the bureaucracies that provide public services.

State governments, meanwhile, seem more inclined to follow Washington budget-cutting lead than to make up the difference.

The upshot is that local communities are being left to set the priorities and take the heat as protests over reduced services wash over them. Battles that once took place in Washington, D.C., are being shoved into the laps of governors, mayors, selectmen and school boards.

If Boston is an example of what is ahead for the rest of the country, communities are in for a protracted period of civil strife pitting policemen and firemen against teachers; older public servants against younger ones not protected by seniority; newly hired blacks with jobs safeguared by affirmative action statutes against white veterans lacking such guarantees, and union leaderships against their members.

In this struggle for a share of the diminished pie, it is the schools and the children they serve that appear especially vulnerable, and the poor schools and the poor children that seem most threatened within this group.

When Boston and neighboring communities announced cuts in public services, angry citizens went into the streets, blocking traffic and demanding restoration of fire and police protection. But there was no comparable outpouring when Mayor Kevin White threatened in late April to shut down schools serving 64,000 students for lack of funds.

Yet, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Gregory R. Anrig warns that if there is no help before next year, "then I think we are basically dismantling public education in the communities affected."

Anrig and some other American educators who are looking ahead at the 1980s have begun to wonder whether trhe cuts might not even force some fundamental changes in the structures of high schools -- changes that might do away with sports and extracurricular programs and leave schools doing little more than running classrooms and stripped-down academic programs.

The reasons for the special vulnerability of the public schools are not difficult to understand.

Public school enrollments are declining, causing a steady erosion of the constituency of parents who provide traditional support for educational spending -- and for the taxation to finance it.

Only one Boston household out of nine now has a child in the public school system and, increasingly, those households belong to blacks and Hispanics. While 40 percent of the city's 12th graders are white, only 27 percent of the first graders are.

Two public high schools, Boston Latin and Latin Academy, both of which grant admission on the basis of an examination, have white majorities. But the percentage whites in the Boston public school system has been dropping at a steady rate of 2 percent a year for the last four years. large numbers of whites now attend private or parochial schools, and there is also "black flight" to parochial schools and to suburban schools under the auspices of a voluntary busing program sponsored by the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity.

These statistics have a bearing on the politics of Proposition 2 1/2 in a city such as Boston, in which the mayor and the five members of the Boston School Committee are elected in citywide balloting. This means that their political survival depends on the votes of the overwhelming majority of people who do not send their childern to a Boston public school.

In some respects, the shock of Proposition 2 1/2 has been even greater in prosperous, less problem-ridden communities with a strong tradition of good public education, and a record of providing funds to maintain it.

The Newton, Mass., school system is a good example of this phenomenon.

Newton is a community that has long had a reputation for good schools.

As 16-year Superintendent Aaron Fink says, "There's a mystique around the schools that draws people who care about education."

Neton school administrators acknowledge that they have an advantage that Boston lacks, in that about a third of local families still have school-age children.

Newton, which ranks in the top third of Massachusetts' towns ad cities in property taxes paid per person, is also wealthier than Boston.

But Newton school officials insist that demographics and affluence alone do not account for the schools' reputation. Its residents range from Harvard professors and computer executives to blue-collar workers, and its population is a representative mix of Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

One indicator of the quality of the public schools is that enrollment of Newton children in private schools is half what it was in 1963, though the numbers have increased somewhat lately.

In the last six years, Fink and his administrators have been able to sail close to the financial wind, cutting the system's educational staff by 26 percent and closing 13 school buildings, while enrollments were delining by a quarter. Three of the six budgets Fink has presented in those years have had overall spending reductions.

As a result of these economies, no basic programs were cut. The athletic program has been kept intact by reducing the number of coaches. The two high schools, which continue to turn out a disproportionate number of national merit scholars still offer six foreign languages (Russian, German, French, Latin, Italian and Spanish) and most elementary schools still offer day-care facilities for working parents with younger children.

But Proposition 2 1/2 threatens to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Under its provisions, Fink says spending will have to be held to $37.8 million while it would have taken $42 million to operate the schools at their present level.

"We don't have anything left to throw overboard," he says.

Many of the school system's costs are fixed. In 1970, fuel cost $77,000. This year the fuel bill will be $1.2 million to heat many fewer buildings. Teacher salaries established by union contract. And the costs of special education, bilingual education, and vocational education -- all required by federal law -- have risen 85 percent, 196 percent and 24 percent respectively in six years.

The result is that the bulk of the new cuts have to come in educational staff.

Scheduled for elimination are 106 professional positions out of just over 1,000, of which 80 are classroom teachers. A catch is that the savings from these layoffs will be offset by the need to pay unemployment compensation to the laid-off teachers. To cover that cost a fourth teaching job has to be eliminated for every three staffers being laid off.

Fink believes that Newton voters probably would override the provisions of Proposition 2 1/2 if given a chance, but there is no appeal or local option under the terms of the recently enacted law.

Even Fink's gloomy projections are contingent on a reassessment of city property in time to generate funds for the coming school year. If the city is forced to live with a lower assessment the impact would be "catastrophic" on the schools, he says.

When California voters, also in revolt against property taxes, passed their Proposition 13 in 1978, the state came to the rescue of towns and schools by drawing on a large cash reserve. But Massachusetts has no such easily tapped source of funds.

Proposition 2 1/2 will affect all communities in the state with property tax rates of more than 2 1/2 percent of assessed valuation. About 86 percent of the state's population lives in the affected communities. Their local governments will have to reduce their tax rates in stages until they have reached the ceiling set by the tax initiative. At the same time, every community in the state faces a sharp cut in motor vehicle excise taxes as a result of the same taxpayer initiative.

According to state revenue analysts, the blow will hit hardest at poor communities, which tend to have high tax rates, low property values and a high demand for public serices.

For example, Fall River, Chelsea, New Bedford, North Adams and Boston -- the five poorest communities in the state -- will have to absorb cuts in their current revenues from property taxes of 56 percent, 72 percent, 49 percent, 32 percent and 72 percent respectively.

Cambridge's mayor has warned that the financial situation is so serious there that if no help is forthcoming, available revenues would cover only fixed expenses, such as interest on old debts, and the city would have to operate without a single employe, including a mayor.

In Boston, this austerity already has given rise to local strife.

Mayor White, faced with the most serious crisis of his administration, recently backed off on threats to fire 4,000 policemen and firemen, but the dismissal notices to 3,200 Boston teachers and administrators still stand.

White has blamed the school system for the city's general money problems, failing to note that nearly half the city's school costs are paid by the state and that well under half the city's revenues go to the schools.

Within the school system, the cutbacks pose some divisive legal and moral problems.

The union contract prohibits teacher layoffs in the coming school year. Many of the teachers receiving layoff notices are from the younger generation of instructors, idealists and activists from the 1960s who were deeply involved with the innovative school programs financed with federal money.

Many of the younger teachers and principals who are low in seniority are blacks or Hispanics who got their jobs after 1974 as a result of affirmative action ordered by a federal court in connection with the school desegregation program.

To deal with this problem, the Boston School Committee has ordered that four whites are to be dismissed for every black. But this could result in legal challenges.

Educators says that the fate of Massachusetts' public schools is now in the hands of the legislature, which has the power to approve an increase in the state's relatively low sales tax to offset some of the local revenues lost through Proposition 2 1/2. Whether the state legislature ultimatiely will buck the national trend and vote a tax increases is not at all certain.