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N.Y. District Fears Fiscal Disaster In Wake of Nuclear Plant's Closing

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WADING RIVER, N.Y.--To critics, the massive nuclear-power plant near here is a dangerous boondoggle that could threaten the lives of thousands of Long Islanders and that has cost billions of dollars while never providing any electricity to consumers.

To the schoolchildren who live in its shadow, though, the Shoreham Nuclear Power Station has seemed until recently almost like a savior.

Thanks to the millions in property taxes paid each year by the nuclear plant, schools here in the largely middle-class Shoreham- Wading River Central School District have been among the wealthiest in the nation.

The district spent $17,435 per pupil last year, more than any other district in the state and easily double the $7,700 state average. It boasts of 1 teacher for every 10 students and provides children with easy access to things that many districts have been forced by the recession to cut back on or go without, such as computers, library books, musical instruments, and art supplies.

But local educators now fear that the impending closing of the nuclear plant may spell disaster for the district.

IL as expected, the state government gets permission from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to buy and close the plant, the district stands to lose nine-tenths of its locally generated revenue.

"We have property wealth because of the power plant. Absent that, we would be property poor," Superintendent David E. Jackson said in an interview.

Without revenues from the plant, the district will have to "significantly" reduce its expenditures and offerings, Mr. Jackson said.

What will remain in the district is a lingering debate over the equity of the state's school-financing system and a memory of the kind of educational programs that well spent money can buy.

The Shoreham-Wading River district is located about midway along Long Island's north shore. It enrolls a total of 2,000 students in a high school, middle school, and three elementary schools.

The district's mostly middle-class neighborhoods have been nicknamed the "Blue Ghetto" because of the large numbers of police officers who live there.

In recent years, however, the police officers have been outnumbered by teachers, many of whom work in other districts but prefer to send their children to Shoreham-Wading River schools, according to Superintendent Jackson.

This fiscal year, the district will spend about $38.8 million. Some $28 million, or 90 percent of the revenue from local sources, will come from taxes paid by the Long Island Lighting Company, owner of the Shoreham plant.

The nearby William Floyd School District, by contrast, will spend about $7,500 per student. Lacking significant tax revenue from commercial and industrial property, its residents pay property taxes of $64 per $1,000 of assessed valuation-one of the highest tax rates in the state and more than three times the rate paid by Shoreham-Wading River residents.

Economic problems last year forced the William Floyd district to layoff administrators, 26 teachers, and 50 other staff members.

Wayne D. Williams, the superintendent of William Floyd, said he was "envious" of the amount the Shoreham-Wading River district has to spend and resentful of the tax system that allows for such inequity.

"You shouldn't allow the commercial and industrial property that happen to be in a school district to determine the quality of education that is available to students," Mr. Williams argued.

Equity Issue Debated

William Floyd is one of 22 districts that have joined in a suit against the state seeking to have New York's school-funding mechanism declared unconstitutional because of the inequities it allows.

Last month, however, a state court dismissed the case, agreeing that the financing system was inequitable but asserting that the matter should instead be addressed by the executive and legislative branches.

Robert E. Molloy, the executive director of Reform Educational Financing Inequities Today, a coalition of 41 school districts that has had a key role in the suit, last week said he was preparing an appeal in the case.

Experts on state politics say no resolution to the equity issue appears likely to come soon from Gov. Mario M. Cuomo or the legislature, which have been wrestling with the question for years and last year were forced to cut state aid to schools by more than $700 million. Robert Rice, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, last week argued that the state needs to spend more on all its districts.

"I don't believe in robbing Peter to pay Paul or chopping down mountains when you have valleys," asserted Cornelius J. Mahoney, the president of the Shoreham-Wading River Teachers Association.

"I think states should be raising the levels of the valleys," Mr. Mahoney said.

Power Company Fights Back

In the meantime, the ample funding enjoyed by the Shoreham- Wading River schools has come under attack from the power company, which has filed suit claiming that the $5.5-billion Shoreham plant has been over-assessed.

Since its construction began in 1973, the power plant has paid $717 million in taxes to the Shoreham-Wading River district, the town of Brookhaven, and other local municipalities, with $270 million of that going to the schools.

In a case pending in a state court, LILCO claims that since the plant never operated, except during tests, it never had any value as real estate. The company has asked to be refunded as much as $600 million.

But the municipalities assert that the taxes were fair and have spent millions in legal fees defending themselves. Mr. Jackson contends that, if LILCO wins the suit, the school district would be unable to pay the settlement.

State and Suffolk County officials have moved to close the plant on the grounds that the area around the plant could not be evacuated safely in event of an accident. They have filed a request with the N.R.c. to have the plant taken over by the state-run Long Island Power Authority, which would shut the plant down or convert it to a natural-gas-burning facility.

A 1989 agreement between LILCO and the state calls for the company to cushion the financial impact of the shutdown on local taxing authorities by putting aside $330 million to be paid to them after the transfer of the plant. The payments would be made over 10 years in increments diminishing by 10 percent each year.

The district, which takes no position on the safety of the nuclear plant, has fought to keep the plant on the tax rolls in the future.

But Richard M. Kessel, the president of the power authority, said last week that "the Shoreham plant is never going to operate as a nuclear plant" and accused the Shoreham-Wading River district of deliberately trying to halt the transfer of the plant to milk more tax money out of it.

"I think the school district has been very greedy," Mr. Kessel said. "They have abused all of the local rate-payers on Long Island to an extreme."

'All the Lights Work'

It is just before Christmas, and the kindergarten class of Wading River Elementary is staging a holiday pageant and singing a paean to Santa Claus.

Observing the proud parents in the audience, Mr. Jackson quips that educational researchers might be able to find a correlation between the number of parents with cam-corders at a school performance and the achievement levels of the students.

Judging from the number of opportunities the district gives its students to display their talents, Mr. Jackson may not be far off the mark.

A tour of the 380-student school reveals several factors that could influence achievement: a library with more than 10,000 books, a courtyard where turtles and rabbits run loose, and English classrooms that award-winning authors of children's books visit three or four days each year, receiving stipends of $300 to $700 per day.

Second graders are encouraged to learn computer keyboards, and the district has an average of one computer for every three and a half students.

"All the lights work. All the windows keep out the wind," Mr. Jackson said."Kids walk in here and say, 'Yeah, this is a place that cares about us.' That relates to motivation, behavioral issues, attendance, and attention."

Zero Dropout Rate Claimed

The district's middle-school students take week-long field trips to nature preserves. In lieu of homeroom, each middle-school faculty member has a group of six to eight students with whom he or she meets daily to counsel and advise.

"We don't have kids who do not achieve in our schools because we do not pay attention to them," Mr. Jackson said.

"Our high schools have a zero dropout rate and a virtually 100 percent graduation rate," he added. 'What is not true of other districts with similar socioeconomic indicators."

The district's high school funds extra-curricular and co-curricular activities at a level that allows students to do near-professional work. The music program, for example, offers jazz, wind and string ensembles, traditional band, and electronic- music class.

"There is a way for just about every kid to hook in, want to be successful, and to, in fact, be successful," said Martin G. Brooks, the district's deputy superintendent.

"Kids typically drop out because they don't experience academic success, and the only success other schools tend to emphasize is academic success," Mr. Brooks said.

While most districts spend about 1 percent of their budgets on staff development, Shoreham spends about 3.5 percent, or about $1 million for a faculty of 230.

Looking to a future without revenues from the plant, Mr. Jackson expressed hope that parents and other homeowners would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain programs.

"If the community is unable to support some increases in taxes, if employees are let go, I don't see how the programs could remain the same," Mr. Mahoney of the local teachers' union said.

Teacher-Student Ties Stressed

"We recognize that we will not be able to maintain the same breadth of programs and services," Mr. Jackson said. "However, the core of what we do here is based on the relationship between teachers and students, As we go forward, those teachers will be here, those relationships will be maintained, and we will continue to offer a high-quality education,"

Neighboring educators, meanwhile, voiced regret at Shoreham- Wading River's impending fall from the heights of education funding.

"God bless Shoreham," said Bruce G. Brodsky, the legislative chairman of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association,

"I'm glad they were fortunate enough to be able to do that for their children," Mr. Brodsky said, "but it would seem to me somewhat unfair-not that they got so much, but that other districts got so little."

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