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Levittown: Taxes Up, Residents Down, Relief Unsure

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Long Island, NY--Sixteen long semesters have passed since New York's Levittown school district first went to court to get aid for its financially beleaguered system--the symbol to many of suburban education gone awry. And for the thousands of youngsters who have passed through Levittown's schools during that time, the case seems proof of the axiom that justice delayed is justice denied.

"It's kinda put me in a state of limbo," one 17-year old Levittown student said three years ago, after school officials abruptly canceled his soccer team's schedule. That was in the fall of 1978, when the district was thrown into disarray by an eight-week teachers' strike that was a direct result of its unresolved financial troubles.

Another Levittown senior commented at the time, referring to the difficulty students were having in preparing for standardized tests during the strike, "I was kind of hoping for a scholarship, but I might as well kiss that goodbye."

Levittown v. Nyquist, which was supported directly by more than two dozen school districts and indirectly by foundation grants, was filed in June 1974. Many of the districts' allegations were familiar ones that had already been tested in earlier legal battles in California and New Jersey: New York's school-finance system, they contended, was unconstitutional.

The districts claimed that the state's school-finance system was unfair because it permitted financial disparities stemming from the schools' heavy reliance on local property taxes, which vary greatly from one district to the next.

That meant that a "property-poor" district such as Levittown, which consisted largely of cheap, look-alike postwar housing developments, might raise only three-fifths as much money for its schools as some wealthier neighboring districts, even if it taxed itself at a much higher rate.

And tax itself Levittown did. There was little industrial or commercial property in the district--local zoning had not encouraged that--so homeowners paid the bills. During the mid-1970's, it was not at all unusual for the owner of a standard five-room Cape Cod-style Levittown house to pay $1,100 per year in school taxes--not to mention hundreds of dollars more in charges for roads, courts, and police protection.

"For sale" signs sprouted by the dozens in many neighborhoods, a reflection of widespread anxiety among middle-aged residents who had moved out to the Long Island suburb during the postwar boom and had subsequently seen taxes increase tenfold. A school-board president of the period, Daniel D. Corritore, wrote of residents "whose incomes are strained to the breaking point and are terrified that they may be taxed out of their homes."

Such complaints had been heard before, when school officials in other states sought finance reforms of their own. But the political aspects of New York's case were different in at least one crucial regard: New York, unlike California and New Jersey, was itself sinking into a deep financial slump during the mid-1970's.

It could not distribute surplus tax money to its schools as California could, because it had no surplus. Nor could it easily follow New Jersey's example in imposing a new statewide income tax; its income taxes already were so high that many well-to-do commuters had packed their family silver and fled to Connecticut.

Thus, there seemed ample reason for New York to stall the final decision on school-finance reform for as long as possible. In fact, one of Long Island's most influential political leaders, Nassau County's Republican chairman, Joseph M. Margiotta, had warned quite emphatically in January 1976 that no major overhaul of the state's school-aid formula would be forthcoming until legislators had dealt with their own "pressing financial problems."

Today, much of that financial gloom has lifted. New York State still is not exactly flush with cash, but at least its major cities no longer flirt with bankruptcy. And Gov. Hugh L. Carey has proposed a revamping of school aid which failed this year in the legislature but may actually prove politically palatable after next November's elections, though the Governor himself is retiring.

Mr. Carey's plan would raise the state's sales tax by a penny in order to generate an additional $550 million in aid for property-poor school districts. (Last year's total aid was $4.2 billion). Among the plan's advantages are its simplicity and its avoidance of higher income taxes that might drive employers out of the state.

But there are disadvantages, too. For one thing, critics of the plan note that higher sales taxes tend to take more money from the poor, in proportion to their incomes, than from the rich. They add that attempts to aid school districts strictly according to their property wealth may overlook additional wealth in the form of residents' income.

The most obvious drawback, however, is that $550 million is not nearly enough money to equalize school spending or taxation in a state where educational constituencies range from remote mountain hamlets to some of the nation's poshest suburbs.

Indeed, a half-billion dollars would hardly meet the needs of just three urban school systems--in New York City, Buffalo, and Rochester--which joined in the Levittown lawsuit and consequently convinced lower courts of the validity of the concept of "municipal overburden." Simply put, the concept means that cities deserve special aid for their schools, because they tend to pay more than suburbs and rural areas for such services as hospitals and police and fire protection.

Nor would Governor Carey's plan erase the trouble of Levittown itself, where teachers have experienced a 16-month freeze on wages in recent years, as well as a prolonged strike. The financial gap between Levittown and its richer neighbors will remain wide for the foreseeable future, whether sales taxes rise or not.

Levittown's tax rate is now about 50 percent higher than that of the nationally recognized Great Neck school system, but its per-pupil spending is about 50 percent less. Under Governor Carey's plan, per-pupil expenditure in Levittown would remain at least 25 percent lower than Great Neck's, even if Levittown were to apply all of its newly won aid to educational costs rather than to a reduction of local property taxes. Thus, it is not surprising that Levittown officials are somewhat acerbic in describing the effects of the widely publicized lawsuit on their own district.

"What it's done to us is more negative than positive" the district's superintendent, Gerald Lauber, said in a recent interview. "When I meet people from around the state, they think we ... are going to hell in a handbasket."

John Hildebrand is the education writer for the Long Island newspaper Newsday.

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