April 04, 2004 11:00 pm

John McCain as a 2000 presidential candidate campaigned under the slogan, "Inspire a generation of Americans to a cause greater than their own self-interest."

Oregon schools are rallying the public to take up this cry. Consider the benefits of a well educated population and then tell us why the

La Grande School District shouldn't borrow $850,000 interest free from the state to help balance its 2004-05 budget. It's the best of some not so pleasant options to keep us in the educational game, to compete with students from other states and around the world.

Because of declining state revenue, the district faces the prospect of cutting $1.35 million to balance its budget. About half of the state's districts are taking advantage of an opportunity the state is providing to borrow from next year's revenue to make up for a state cut of one monthly payment to districts in 2002-03.

Superintendent Jay Rowell was smart to hold forums to gather input from the public and to show a willingness to hear all sides in the debate. Some options for saving money from a series of workshops this winter included making changes in a retirement program for past administrators and using money now available due to changes in Public Employment Retirement System benefits. Closing LHS' alternative education center was also mentioned, but the center provides an effective education for kids who otherwise would fall through the cracks, and center staff deserves reassurances of job stability in order to do their jobs at peak performance.

Resolving the dire Oregon education funding crisis will be a challenge. Of course, no one wants to hurt students or cut staff unless that is the only option left.

And no one really wants to cut activities and athletics, which would save the district about $205,000 per year. Cutting athletics and activities would have negative consequences on the social fabric of the community. Face it, the Friday night lights play an important role in our quality of life, generation to generation. Of more immediate concern, however, are students seeking college scholarships. Academics is only a part of a well-rounded student experience, and getting college scholarships requires a full resume that may also include athletics, music, theater, clubs and more.

Sure, Burns girls basketball and Creswell boys basketball this year made remarkable runs and won state titles with teams funded by private donations. But over the long run that approach looks unsustainable. People get exhausted giving donations and raising money. Besides, the Tiger Boosters already give a lot of donations, and raise money, to help the student-athletes purchase supplemental equipment to enhance their experience.

Nobody wants to go there. Borrowing money from the state interest free is for now the only good choice. Some people have a hard time swallowing the truth that schools and other government entities do make a difference in people's lives, and properly funded schools set high standards that roll over to benefit the family, the workplace, the community and the world.

Sure, Oregon's hunt for a long-term education funding solution must continue. But to give in now to the gloomsayers and make radical cuts before they are absolutely necessary is to become cynical, and that is dangerous when dealing with public schools. As novelist Susan Sontag said, "Cynicism to me is a dead end."

La Grande schools have a proud tradition of not going down dead ends but rather facing and conquering adversity.