D.C. public schools spend less per pupil than four high-performing neighboring suburban districts if federal funding is excluded, and local funding in inflation-adjusted dollars today is about equal to fiscal 1991 funding levels, according to a new report on the system's budget.

Furthermore, the notion that D.C. public schools spend more than other area systems on central administration is wrong. It spends about as much per pupil on central office functions as Montgomery and Fairfax counties and much less than smaller neighbors Arlington County and Alexandria, the report said.

The findings were part of a report released late last week by Parents United for D.C. Schools, an education advocacy group, before today's hearing by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) on the proposed 2004 fiscal budget advanced by the Board of Education.

Parents United showed comparisons without federal funds because it indicates the level of commitment to schools at the local level, according to the group, and because some of the federal funding comes with restrictions on its use.

The report adds fuel to a years-long debate about how the school system spends the local and federal money it receives. The process by which city officials decide on school funding each year has traditionally been contentious, with school officials saying they need more to improve crumbling school buildings and educate a growing number of children with special needs, and critics arguing that the schools are not cost-effective.

The school board's proposed 2004 proposed budget asks for $848 million, an increase of $107.4 million or 14.5 percent over the current budget. Superintendent Paul L. Vance has said the system, which educates 67,500 students in traditional schools, needs $803.3 million simply to maintain current operating levels and to pay for previously approved salary increases for teachers and other staff. He said he wanted an additional $44.6 million for "essential improvements."

City officials, though, have expressed skepticism, saying such a big boost in tough economic times was highly unlikely.

Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's education committee, said that he would work to get the system more resources but that the request was "probably unrealistic."

The mayor's spokesman, Tony Bullock, said the schools have seen large increases in each of the past four years while other agencies saw no significant hike. "And what we are not seeing is measurable improvement," he said, adding that with sluggish city revenues projected, "we just don't have the kind of resources that could support that level of percentage increase."

Mary Levy, Parents United's counsel and budget analyst who wrote the report, said it does not advocate a specific budget plan but lays out facts for policymakers. An attorney for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights who has worked this year with school officials on budgeting, Levy said she compared the District to neighboring systems because they are high performing and in the same cost area.

The report was signed by a special Advisory Committee of Civil Leaders, including Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League, and Ronald S. Flagg, a partner in the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood.

The report said that myths persist about how D.C. schools spend money and that these negatively affect policymakers during the budget process.

For example, many people believe incorrectly that the school system spends more than other systems on central administration and has the highest per pupil cost in the nation, the report said.

When comparing total operating funding, the District spends less per pupil than two of its five neighbors and only marginally more than two others. The suburban numbers are calculated annually by the Metropolitan Boards of Education using a standardized methodology, which the report authors applied to the DCPS budget and enrollment.

Under this method, Arlington spends $12,716 per student, Alexandria $11,914, the District $10,031, Montgomery County $9,741, Fairfax $9,388 and Prince George's $6,554.

Without federal funding, the report said, spending per pupil in the District is less than in any neighboring jurisdictions except Prince George's, slightly less than in Montgomery and Fairfax and much less than in Arlington and Alexandria -- $8,536 per pupil in the District compared with $8,638 in Montgomery, $8,768 in Fairfax , $11,454 in Alexandria, and $11,769 in Arlington.

The report shows continuing trouble for the District with affordability of its special education program. Critics have long complained that the system does not have enough local programs for these students and is forced to spend too much on private school tuition.

It said the District has a higher percentage of special education students than Montgomery and Fairfax though the figure is comparable to Alexandria and Arlington: 16.9 percent of the total enrollment for the city, with Alexandria at 16.8 percent, Arlington at 17.4, Fairfax at 13.4, Montgomery at 11.3 and Prince George's at 10.9.

In fiscal 1997, D.C. schools' local funds expenditures were lower than they had been since fiscal 1991, and teachers and other employees had gone for several years without pay increases. Budgets were increased in each of the following years, largely for teacher salary increases, private school tuition and transportation for special education students. In inflation-adjusted dollars, local funding per pupil for those in the system dropped by $2,000 per pupil between 1991 and 1997.

The report noted that the budget increase being sought by the school board is "plainly substantial." But it said that about 80 percent is to cover mandatory items, primarily negotiated teacher pay increases and emergency building improvement programs.

"We cannot expect schools to function properly without effective classroom instruction and strong administrative leadership, and the District cannot hope to hire and retain high quality personnel without paying salaries and benefits competitive with the amounts paid by neighboring districts," the report said.

"Nor can we expect our young people to learn in dilapidated and deteriorating, much less unsafe, schools."