Top officials in the D.C. school system deliberately withheld from the D.C. Council statistics that showed a steep drop in student enrollment, an internal school system audit reveals.

The confidential audit, obtained yesterday by The Washington Post, contradicts remarks School Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins and school board members made about the system's enrollment discrepancies earlier this year. Jenkins and the board have said their failure to give the council accurate enrollment figures during a February hearing on the school budget was an accident.

Overall, the auditors draw a portrait of widespread incompetence, along with the concealing of information, in what is one of the school system's fundamental tasks: counting students. The count plays a large role in council deliberations over how much money the schools should have.

According to the audit, Arthur G. Hawkins, one of the school system's three deputy superintendents, told the system's budget director, Linden E. DeJoseph, to "pull out" the lower enrollment figure from documents the council had requested.

Hawkins told school auditors he thought the lower enrollment figures -- about 6,500 fewer students -- were not supposed to be released. The report does not say why he felt that way. Neither Hawkins or DeJoseph could be reached yesterday to comment on the audit.

Jenkins, in an interview late yesterday, said he did not know why the top officials failed to include the accurate enrollment. "Certainly I directed no one to take such an action," he said. "Absolutely not."

Jenkins said the audit, which criticizes school officials for bungling enrollment procedures for the past four years, is credible. "I think the findings are pretty hard," he said. "But I think the system needs to know this and start rebuilding."

The auditors say that enrollment in D.C. schools, now 81,300 students, dropped an average of about 2,000 students a year between 1980 and 1990. In recent years, school system officials have been saying publicly that enrollment was stable and that the system's budget had to increase.

The rate of decline meant "budget reductions of $10 million per year should have been expected during the decade," the audit states. It contains documents that show the school system's budget -- now $512 million annually -- nearly doubled between 1980 and 1990.

By fall 1986, the audit concludes, the system should have known its counting methods were wrecked because there were large discrepancies in the enrollment numbers given to the city and to the U.S. Department of Education.

The audit also lists several other times -- both long before the numbers controversy with the council this spring -- when the system knew its population had dwindled. In January and June 1989, school system researchers discovered errors in the count that they did not report to the superintendent or the school board. In each case, enrollment was found to be thousands of students lower than the count the school system handed the council and mayor in December.

According to the audit, many errors occurred when the school officials were asked to tabulate enrollment by computer. "The change was too abrupt for many principals to comprehend," the audit states.

It adds that attendance records at many schools are poorly kept, and that responsibility for enrollment has been scattered in too many parts of the schools' bureaucracy.

Jenkins, who has conceded in other interviews that the enrollment confusion has hurt the system's credibility, said yesterday that a private accounting firm soon will begin another audit of student population.

That audit was scheduled to begin three months ago but has been mired in delays. Meanwhile, Jenkins and school board members have not yet said what is causing the enrollment decline -- which, according to the internal audit, has been most severe in the past two years.

Parents United, the city's leading school advocate group, contends that drug-related violence is prompting many families to remove their children from city schools.

Jenkins said he is still reviewing the audit and has not decided if he will reprimand Hawkins, DeJoseph, or any other administrator. "We're in very serious deliberations about that right now," he said.

School board member R. David Hall (Ward 2), who lobbied Jenkins to hire Hawkins last year as a deputy superintendent, said reprimands would not be wise because so much of the system is to blame for enrollment errors.

"There have been systematic shortcomings," Hall said. "People have been relying on computer systems more than common sense and hard work."

Hall said he had implored the board and Jenkins not to release enrollment figures until they were certain what was correct, but did not tell Hawkins to withhold the numbers from the council.

"I don't think this was a coverup. There were just many sets of numbers, and Hawkins did what good managers do: He made a decision," Hall said.