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D.C. School-Funding Request Cut Amid Enrollment Flap

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The District of Columbia city council last week drastically cut a proposed 1991 budget increase for local public schools amid continuing confusion over erroneous enrollment figures that have masked a steep decline in actual enrollment in recent years.

The council, many of whose members face re-election or are running for mayor this year, rejected a package of tax increases proposed by Mayor Marion S. Barry that would have helped finance a nearly $100-million increase in school spending next year.

The Mayor's $600-million school budget request represented a 20 per4cent increase over this year.

The council cut all but $34 million of the proposed funding increase. However, about $34 million of the amount cut was slated for boosting teacher salaries, and council members vowed to fund at a later date pay raises that will be negotiated by the school board.

The council's action was played out against the backdrop of revelations about inaccurate enrollment tallies by school officials.

School officials maintained in their budget request, submitted late last year to the school board, that enrollment in city schools had held steady at 88,000 in recent years and was projected to increase to 89,000 next year.

But a count of students in October revealed an actual enrollment of only 81,301 students. School-board members have questioned why they were given the 88,000 figure in the budget request.

Council members cited the enrollment flap in their decision to trim some $17 million of the requested increase that was tied directly to enrollment.

"The lack of candor about enrollment was so ill-timed that it is hard to imagine a better strategy to potentially destroy a strong school budget," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for D.C. Schools, the city's largest school-advocacy group. "It's like shooting yourself in the foot on purpose."

Revelations, Explanations

In a new disclosure, The Washington Post has reported that school officials have been providing the U.S. Education Department with figures that show a decline in student enrollment since the mid-1980's, contradicting what they have told both the city council and the public.

According to figures supplied to the department, the newspaper reported, the system's enrollment was 84,792 in 1988-89.

Superintendent of Schools Andrew E. Jenkins has said he will hire a private auditing firm to ascertain the reasons for the discrepancies.

Meanwhile, school officials and4outsiders have suggested various explanations for the sharp decline in enrollment in the late 1980's.

School officials have said they have no clear idea what can account for the decline. They suggest, however, that counting errors, a low birth rate, and a dropout rate for junior- and senior-high school students that is greater than they had thought may be responsible.

An examination of data by Mary Levy, an enrollment analyst for Parents United, has suggested another possible explanation.

Enrollment declines have been steepest, she said, in schools close to drug-plagued neighborhoods in the Southeast and Northeast quadrants of the city.

"In many instances, those families with the resources are getting their kids out of there," she said.

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