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BUDGET WOES: La Grande Superintendent Jay Rowell addresses the school district's budget shortfall in a public input session at the La Grande Middle School Monday night. At right is Laura Tucker, school district business manager.  (Observer photos/PHIL BULLOCK).
BUDGET WOES: La Grande Superintendent Jay Rowell addresses the school district's budget shortfall in a public input session at the La Grande Middle School Monday night. At right is Laura Tucker, school district business manager. (Observer photos/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The message was clear.

The La Grande School District should address its financial problems to make itself stronger.

This was the opinion of many who attended a public input session on the school district's 2003-2004 budget on Monday at La Grande Middle School.

The meeting was conducted by the school district to get recommendations about what it should do to address the budget shortfall, the result of declining state revenue.

About 30 people attended. A number warned that the district will not help itself by cutting programs that keep students in school. The district receives about $5,000 per student from the state, so fewer students means less money from the state.

Several people said keeping programs intact will attract more students from outlying communities in Union County. La Grande Superintendent Jay Rowell agreed, saying that during this school year about 30 students from outlying communities have transferred to the La Grande district. He feels La Grande offers programs some smaller districts cannot, including various music, drama and athletic programs.

Rowell said it is critical that the district maintain a well-rounded program that includes not only athletics but FFA, drama, journalism, art and much more.

"These programs keep kids in school,'' Rowell said.

Bryan Ackley of La Grande suggested that La Grande consider entering into agreements with other districts in the county to make it easier for their students to attend some classes in La Grande that are not offered at their schools.

"I don't want to see us give anything up. I want to see us move forward, not backward,'' Ackley said.

La Grande High School's alternative school was also listed as a program that keeps students in school. It focuses on meeting the needs of freshmen and sophomores by teaching them basic schools.

Pete Ridder, one of the school's teachers and a parent, said that the alternative program may support itself by keeping many students in school who might otherwise leave. Ridder said that expanding the alternative school program would actually help the district financially.

The issue of early retirement was raised at Monday's meeting. It was suggested that the school district could save money if more teachers retired and were replaced by younger teachers who are paid less.

Rowell said he would be opposed to hiring less experienced teachers to save money.

"That would go against my philosophy of always hiring the best teacher,'' Rowell said.

The superintendent also said it would not be realistic for the district to have an early retirement program. He said the district would have to provide financial incentives for early retirement, which the district cannot afford.

He said the Baker School District is phasing out its early retirement program because it has been unsuccessful.

The superintendent urged parents concerned about school funding to contact state legislators.

He said he believes legislators may be more receptive to parents than school administrators.

"They hear from me every day,'' Rowell said. "Parents can have a big impact.''

Monday's meeting was the first of two the school district is conducting to get public input on its budget.

The next session will be from 6 to 8 p.m. March 5 in the La Grande Middle School commons.


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