August 07, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Obsever Staff Writer

La Grande School Superintendent Jay Rowell admits that he was momentarily stunned by Gov. John Kitzhaber's decision to veto two education funding bills.

"It threw me into a tailspin at first,'' Rowell said this morning about Kitzhaber's televised address Wednesday.

And for good reason.

Rowell said that the La Grande School District will have to cut about $1.4 million from its $16 million 2002-03 budget if the Legislature does not override the vetoes.

"This would be a very substantial cut,'' Rowell said.

The superintendent said he and the school board will be forced to cut teachers and staff and possibly reduce the number of days in the school year.

Any changes in the length of the school year would have to be negotiated with the district's teacher and classified staff unions. A waiver would also have to be obtained from the state.

Rowell said a plan for the cuts would have to be agreed upon before the start of the school year. The school board will meet to discuss the proposed cuts following the Legislature's special session. The Legislature will meet on Aug. 16 to decide whether it will override the vetoes.

Another cloud hanging over the school district is Measure 19, which voters will decide on Sept. 17. The bill would allow the state to take $150 million from an education endowment fund and use it for school operating expenses. Rowell said that failure of Measure 19 would cost the La Grande School District $400,000.

On the plus side, the La Grande School District has a contingency fund of $423,000 it can draw upon to help deal with the budget crisis.

"This (the contingency fund) will just about be wiped out,'' Rowell said.

The superintendent said some money will have to be kept in the contingency fund for emergencies.

Kitzhaber said Wednesday his vetoes are prudent and best for the future of Oregon's schools even though it will have a major impact on the coming school year. Rowell does not agree and believes that one should look at the issue from the students' perspective.

"If you decimate a year of education for a child, that child does not get that year back,'' Rowell said.

Rowell is hopeful that the Legislature will override the vetoes. He noted that Democrats and Republicans are upset with the governor's action.

"We are planning for the worst but hoping for the best,'' Rowell said.