Wednesday, June 30, 2004

How many students are in the District’s public schools? It depends on whom you ask.

According to school system officials, the District had 65,099 students enrolled in its 167 schools and learning centers this school year.

But independent auditors last fall counted 61,653 students — 3,446 fewer than the school system’s count.

Federal education funding based on enrollment could be at stake because of the discrepancy, even as the school system’s budget grows to about $760 million next year amid a shrinking student population.

Neither school officials nor the D.C. State Education Office, which commissioned the audit, could account for the discrepancy.

School system spokeswoman Rachel Christoferson insisted that the official enrollment is 65,099 students.

“Each fall, about the fifth or sixth week of school, every school system takes an official tally based on a head count of who has been showing up for class,” said Miss Christoferson, a spokeswoman for interim Superintendent Robert Rice.

The audit, which was conducted in October by the accounting firm of Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio and Associates PC, shows that public school enrollment dropped from 64,272 last year to 61,653 this year.

Kate Hawkinson, program analyst for the D.C. State Education Office, vouched for the accuracy of the 61,653 figure.

“In terms of the difference, all I can say is that the final audit numbers show the number of students for which the auditors found documentation,” Miss Hawkinson said. “The auditor looks through the files and verifies that the information is current, complete and verified by a school official.”

School system spokeswoman Lucy Young said several programs and grants are based on student enrollment, but could not provide specific figures. She said school system officials have challenged the State Education Office’s audit.

The State Education Office oversees federal child nutrition programs and creates school residency rules in addition to verifying the school system’s enrollment counts. The agency reports to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who has sought to take over the school system.

D.C. school board member Tommy Wells said he rejects the mayor’s independent audit. He also said suburban students’ illegally enrolling in city schools is a major problem.

The Washington Times reported earlier last month that D.C. school officials caught and withdrew 55 students who were illegally enrolled in city public schools this year.

“I do believe we have students from Maryland and Virginia who haven’t verified their residency, but I stand by the superintendent’s number,” Mr. Wells said. “He’s our employee, and we pay him to come up with good numbers.”

Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mr. Williams, disagreed.

“First of all, a 3,500-student discrepancy is worrisome,” he said. “The second issue is whether or not there are students enrolled illegally in the city’s schools.”

“I tend to trust the professional auditor who has no reason to do anything but a careful count. I think the schools need to explain why their figures are at variance,” Mr. Bullock said.

Mr. Williams has sparred with the D.C. Council to get authority to hire and fire the superintendent and reduce the role of the school board to that of an advisory panel. The school board currently consists of elected and appointed members, and the council has authorized it to become a fully elected panel again in 2008.

This is not the first time a discrepancy has emerged in the school system’s enrollment figures. In 1977, school officials said 77,111 students were enrolled — a decline of 1,500 from a previous tally. The discrepancy was blamed in part on inaccurate record keeping by former Superintendent Franklin L. Smith, who was fired by the D.C. financial control board.

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