How tough is it for Independent School District No. 89 of Oklahome City to ge the federal government to forgive a debt?

The Aug. 28 Federal Register (page 57487) tells this school system's story and, in the process, shows how street-smart some educators have become about the federal bureaucracy.

Back in 1971, District 89 got a $200,000 grant from the now defunct Educational Broadcasting Facilities Program, which once was run by the recently divided Department of Health, educations, and Welfare.

The school district had taken over the FIRST ULTRA HIGH FREQUENCY (UHF) channel in Oklahoma, City, going on the air with the ambitious intention of operating an educational television station. The federal money was used to purchase equipment to operate the station.

The federal agency in this matter being no fool, a string was attached to the grant. If the school district failed to fulfill its promise to use the federally paid-for equipment for 10 years, it would have to pay back a portion of the money or show "good cause" why it had not.

Running the station got too expensive for the district, according to one of the Oklahomans involved, and it was sold to a commercial operator in 1978 for $3.5 million.

The next year the educators were back asking HEW to forgive the debt -- about $119,000 -- and saying that various federally inspired programs had created the district's financial problems in the first place.

They cited the financial burden of federally required special classes for non-english-speaking students ($410,000 in one school year), the expense of providing new facilities for the handicapped and the costs of expanding "athletic programs for female students."

Before HEW could act, the educational station grant programs was transfered to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Department of Commerce. And showing some sophistication with the ways of Washington, the Oklahoma City district revised its "forgiveness" plea, citing costs of programs more in line with the television interests of the Commerce Department bureaucrats.

Gone were references to classes for non-English speakers and handicapped students. In their placd were the district's need to expand videotape capabilities" so educators could talk advantage of an offer of a channel on the city's new cable television system.

The Commerce Department agency has sent the matter to its staff "for a decision."