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Campaign charity Influenced by the pro-military sentiment prompted by Operation Desert Storm and sympathy for children caught in the middle of a legal dispute, the Education Department has decided to keep impact aid flowing to two North Dakota school districts, despite a disagreement over whether their boundaries comport with federal law.

The tale began when the state board of education created districts whose borders were coterminous with those of the Grand Forks and Minot Air Force bases. The enrollment of base children in the previous nearby districts was declining as a percentage of total enrollment, and was threatening to drop enough to make the districts ineligible for the highest level of impact aid. That could have cost the systems millions of dollars.

The new districts had no tax bases, and were thus eligible for large amounts of impact aid, which compensates districts for taxes lost due to the presence of federal installations.

Some members of the Congress thought the move was improper, and feared that other districts would follow suit. They attached provisions to a 1990 education bill rendering ineligible for impact aid districts created primarily to increase the amount their schools would be due.

The Education Department first told the North Dakota districts they were ineligible for impact aid this year.

But Assistant Secretary John T. MacDonald recently informed them that the department had reconsidered the issue and had concluded that the districts were not formed "primarily" to obtain impact aid, and thus they would be eligible.

Some observers speculate that the reversal was prompted by pressure from the state's governor and Congressional delegation. Some Congressional aides said Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, had threatened to prevent a vote on the nomination of Lamar Alexander to be Secretary of Education unless the districts received their funds.

However, an Education Department spokesman said the agency simply did not want to deprive the children involved of their education, noting that impact aid formed the bulk of the schools' budgets.

Sympathy for military families during wartime was also a consideration, the spokesman said.

The Reagan Administration failed to abolish the Education Department, but succeeded in cutting its size, reducing its staff level from a high of 6,883 in fiscal year 1981 to a low of 4,413 in fiscal 1987.

Critics charged that personnel were being removed from grant programs the Administration disliked, and that the office for civil rights in particular was being pared down into ineffectiveness.

The Bush Administration has quietly reversed that trend. Each of its three budgets has requested funds for additional employees at e.d. The staff level rose to 4,596 in fiscal 1990 and 4,735 in 1991, and the 1992 proposal includes funds for 192 new employees.

Department officials have said the increases have been needed to manage new programs authorized by the Congress. But the staffing level dropped in 1987, the year after higher-education programs were reauthorized and special-education mandates were expanded, and again in 1989, after the Congress passed a major elementary-and-secondary-education bill.

According to budget documents, 100 of the employees to be added in 1992 are to work on improving oversight of troubled student-aid programs, while 35 are to be assigned to the civil-rights office, which is also set for an increase in non-personnel funding.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lamar Alexander would become the first Education Secretary with school-age children, one of whom attended his confirmation hearing.

Mr. Alexander told reporters after the hearing that the two youngest of his four children would be coming to Washington with him, and would attend Georgetown Day School, an independent, nonsectarian institution.

Acting Secretary Ted Sanders was one of six finalists for the job of Texas education commissioner, according to Texas officials.

The job went to Lionel Meno, deputy commissioner of elementary and secondary education in New York State.

Mr. Sanders was Illinois's school chief before accepting the department's number-two post in 1988, and has had a long career in school administration.

Some department sources said Mr. Sanders was miffed at not being selected for the Secretary's post when Lauro F. Cavazos was forced to leave it last year.

Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, will donate $460,000 in surplus campaign funds to colleges and technical schools in his state and to a scholarship fund, his campaign treasurer announced recently.

Mr. Thurmond, a member of the Senate's education subcommittee, is a former public-school teacher and administrator.--j.m.

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