Alexandria taxpayers paid an estimated $4.5 million last year to allow 909 students to repeat a grade in the public schools.

Those figures prompted several School Board members at a work session early yesterday to remark that if the cost was widely known, there might be "insurmountable pressure" to advance students even if they were not academically prepared to enter the next grade.

They also moved Board Chairman Lou Cook to declare that "this is not a dollars-and-cents issue" and the board's Budget Advisory Committee to undertake a study, with a view to finding alternatives to holding students back from promotion.

Cook said "the board is on record against social promotions" -- promoting students because of their age rather than achievement.

The 909 students who repeated a grade amount to 9 percent of the system's 10,080 students, according to William Leonard Jr., assistant superintendent for finance and administrative services. That is triple the percentage of failures in other suburban districts last year. Leonard estimated the yearly cost of educating each student at $5,000.

Cook said the committee's request to study the issue, which the board decided to support on a 5-to-3 straw vote, with one abstention, came "dangerously close to policy-making."

"We're not telling the School Board to promote these kids," budget committee Vice Chairman Claudia Waller said. "But we are saying that there might be better ways to educate these kids than having them repeat the year."

She mentioned the possibility of giving extra help to students in danger of failing by hiring more teachers and expanding summer and remedial programs. She also said the committee is concerned that the number of retentions -- up last year by one percentage point -- will continue to rise as academic requirements rise and more foreign-born students enter the schools.

The committee, which is appointed by the board, should complete its study next spring.

In other action, the board approached a compromise with athletic coaches by offering fresh options on a controversial proposal that would bench athletes who earned less than a C average.

A dozen coaches have denounced the proposal, which would require athletes to have a C average in the semester before the playing season.

Lynnwood Campbell Jr., who sponsored the original proposal, suggested letting students who earned a D average the previous semester play, provided they achieve a C average during the playing season. Other options discussed allowed for the athletes with a D average to begin playing while they try to bring up their average.