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The widening gap between rich and poor mandates the elimination of the property tax as the main funding source for public schools, a panel said Tuesday evening.

Pupils are being penalized by accidents of geography, and it's getting worse, panelists told about 60 listeners during a discussion at the Walden Galleria sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Kenneth Dyl, assistant director of the Erie I Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said the property tax is probably the most inequitable base to use for financing public education. Dyl, former superintendent of the Cleveland Hill School District in Cheektowaga, now specializes in finance and legislative services for BOCES, dealing with 46 school districts in this end of the state.

Dyl said he is disturbed by the shifting of responsibility from the state to local governments for school programs. Buffalo can least afford to pick up the burden, he said, because more than 40 percent of its property isn't on the tax rolls. The exempt figure for Erie County as a whole is 22.3 percent. On top of that, he said, assessment practices vary widely among the 900 jurisdictions in the state.

"Income-tax funding is probably the way to go," he said, "either at the county or at the state level."

Basing school taxes on personal income would also force renters to join homeowners in supporting public schools.

In 1988 the state income-tax rate was 14 percent, Dyl said. By the end of 1996 it will be 6.95 percent.

If all residential property in Erie County were eliminated from the taxing base for the schools, Dyl said, the gap could be made up by raising the 6.95 percent state income-tax rate by just 2.33 percent. This would cost $1,165 more for an individual whose taxable income was $50,000, he added; on $20,000 taxable income, it would be another $466.

"Pay now or pay much more later," said Joan Bozer, former Erie County legislator, who noted the social costs of not properly educating the poor. "It costs up to $75,000 a year to keep one (delinquent) child" in a detention facility.

Philip B. Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, noted that the property tax on a house is the same whether it's occupied by a working couple or a retired couple.

"Once when I was in Albany I suggested to the legislators that they start funding government based on property taxes," he said. "They almost threw me out of the room. It would mean that every time they funded a new program they'd have to raise the voters' property taxes."

Buffalo spent $7,746 per public school pupil during the 1993-94 school year, Rumore said. That's $1,154 less per pupil than the state average. To catch up, he added, Buffalo would have to raise at least another $53 million in school taxes.

The state is the only answer for equalizing educational opportunities, said Peter Roswell, superintendent of the Holland Central School District. He called for full state funding of the schools and fiscal independence for city districts.

If the combined property and income wealth that is behind each public school student in New York State were represented by the figure 1, he said, Amherst's wealth would be 1.648, while Buffalo's would be only .457.

"Their tax bases are so different," he said, "so their ability to pay, per pupil, is very unequal."

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