Lured by special incentives and one-time-only benefits, more than 1,800 D.C. government and public school employes retired between June and December -- an unprecedented mass exodus that removed nearly 6 percent of all the people who were on the city's payroll last spring.

Most of the retirees were rank-and-file workers who will not be replaced as a deficit-ridden city government seeks still further reductions in the size of its staff. But many were senior personnel whose departure leaves key departments and agencies stripped of experienced leadership.

Among those who have left are school Superintendent Vincent E. Reed, his top assistant and another key aide; five of the city's top 10 health officials; some of the city's most experienced police captains, lieutenants and sergeants and numerous other key officials throughout the city government.

Half of those who left, including Reed, went out under the terms of an "early out" offer that allowed them to retire on partial pension at age 50 instead of 55 or at any age if they had 25 years of service. That offer, and a cost-of-living pension increase, expired at the end of December, spurring an end-of-the-year rush of both regular and early-out retirements.

Among these who retired were Dr. Roselyn Epps, the acting commissioner of Health in the Department of Human Services, and William H. Whitehurst, the department's deputy director; Jean Levesque, Water Resources administrator in the Department of Environmental Services; Ronald Mordecai, deputy director of the Department of General Services and that department's construction director, Robert Harris; assistant fire chiefs John Devine and Calvin Watson; and Assistant Corporation Counsel Melvin Washington.

The city government, faced with the need to cut its payroll to reduce expenditures, encouraged the retirements, but it is not clear how much money will be saved. The federal government pays the pension benefits of some of the workers but the city must pay those in the school system and in the police and fire departments, as well as the salaries of any new employes.

"There should be some savings," said City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers, "but I'm not sure how much." What the retirements did do, Rogers said, was save the jobs of some workers who might have been laid off; payrolls were pared by the removal of those who chose retirement, rather than through dismissals, though further dismissals are still expected as the city's financial crisis continued.

The biggest bloc of retirees was in the public school system, where 675 workers departed, 250 of them through early-out retirements, according to the school's personnel office. In addition to Reed, who took early retirement to end months of frustration in dealing with a fractious Board of Education, they included Vice Superintendent Elizabeth Yancey and the deputy superintendent for management services, Ransellaer Shorter, as well as several principals and assistant principals.

Among the departments under the control of Mayor Marion Barry, the police department had the greatest number of retirements, 263, most of whom went out in one wave last summer.The departure of the experienced captains, lieutenants and sergeants left district commanders complaining that they lacked the personnel to send out full complements of officers.The total strength of the force fell to 3,660, its lowest in more than a decade, but Congress has since directed the city to rebuild it to 3,880, and a class of recruits has begun training.

At Human Services, where 239 workers retired, the unexpected late-December departure of Epps underscored the morale problems among the most senior and experienced officials. Five of the city's top 10 health positions, including that of Epps, have been vacated since August. Dr. William Washington, who headed the agency that runs the public clinics, took early retirement in November, after holding the position for just one day, and his deputy quickly followed.

Because of the vacancies, some administrators who stayed are holding three or four positions at a time, while complaining that director James Buford's personnel policies amounted to a vote of no confidence in them. When the department was reorganized last February, Epps and other officials were assigned to their positions on an "acting" basis, and in July, all top-level positions were advertised as open. In recent months, some job holders were made permanent but many were not, including Epps, Audrey Rowe, acting commissioner of Social Services, and William J. Gray, acting Payments Assistance (welfare) administrator. Instead, the positions were advertised as open again a few weeks ago.

Buford said he postponed a final decision on Epps' job because he felt he had not looked at enough applicants. He said he hoped to announce the appointment of a permanent health commissioner by the end of this month, though recruiting efforts in DHS and other departments have been hampered by the new law requiring that new employes either live in the District of Columbia or move in within six months.

Epps said the uncertainty over whether she would be kept in her job was one factor in her decision to retire. As far as she knows, she said, none of those who retired from the D.C. government actually plans to quit working. They are going to work somewhere else. "They didn't miss a day," she said. "They started someplace else. These are people who are in their productive years . . . they're not people who are at the end of the road, who have nothing more to give -- they have nothing more to give there" at DHS.

"We always regret losing good people," Buford said, "but it does give you flexibility in terms of recruiting new blood, people who may be less traditional, maybe even less bureaucratic and with a new vision."