TO UNDERSTAND the D.C. public school system's absurd inability to provide an accurate count of its students, some perspective is necessary. Begin with the fact that it took one month for six people to produce a credible count of the pupils in the New York City public school system, which has 945,000 students in some 1,000 school buildings. That's seven times as many school buildings as in the District of Columbia and, we think, 12 times as many students.

Almost a year ago in the District, school system officials and Superintendent Andrew Jenkins put enrollment at 88,000 students. They later offered a figure of 81,300 students. Now, independent auditors, who encountered a trail they could only have envisioned in their worst nightmares, say they found 80,382 students.

What's responsible for the foul-ups? The evidence highlights an incredible string of shortcomings and failures involving many individuals. Were school membership reports or hard copies of official student lists for the school years between 1985 and 1989 available to the auditors? The answer is no on both counts. Only less reliable end-of-the-school-year data existed, and the auditors were told that four years of computer tapes of the school system's official October count had been erased, allegedly because of the need to use the tapes for other purposes.

There is no central authority responsible for the integrity of the count, no consistent adherence to procedures, no regular analysis to check the information received, no routine internal audit process to verify student enrollment before the count becomes "official" and no staff member with sufficient computer programming knowledge of the language on which the school system's data management system is written -- a system that does not alert programmers when students have been counted twice, nor when the count includes students who have left the school system.

Federal and local funding, individual school budgets, dropout and graduation rates, teacher-student ratios and the need or lack thereof to hire more teachers -- all this and more depend on an accurate enrollment count. Simply put, this is one of a school system's most basic responsibilities. Any move to sweep the D.C. government of incompetence and inefficiency must include the Presidential Building, which houses the administrative offices of the D.C. public schools and its superintendent.