April 08, 2004 11:00 pm

Polls and surveys certainly have their place in modern society, especially when it comes to politics and putting issues before voters. But relying too heavily on surveys can become a crutch, especially when it comes to plain old-fashioned decision making.

The La Grande School District this week released the results of a patron opinion survey about the district's budget predicament. The survey of 152 registered voters — 1.8 percent of those registered in the district — showed, among other things, that 84 percent of respondents would support paying more taxes to fix and improve buildings. The poll, to its credit, did not show that patrons would be willing to pay more in taxes to build new buildings.

District officials might want to take the 84 percent figure with a grain of salt. The figure is far too optimistic to base any future bond measures on.

La Grande might very well be the progressive hub of Eastern Oregon, but 84 percent is an overwhelming number. Telling a pollster how you might vote on a tax measure is one thing, but looking at a specific dollar figure when filling out a ballot is an entirely different matter.

The last two statewide votes on taxes should be an indication of the sentiment running rampant among Oregon voters. While Union County voters' rejections of Measures 28 and 30 were less severe than the state as a whole and far less severe than most of Eastern Oregon, the results were still clear. The tax measures wouldn't have passed here, either.

But the school district's survey begs even more questions. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they would close the alternative school to save money. Thirty-eight percent said they would not. If it were up to patrons, the alternative school would be history. Athletic programs fared much better. Forty-six percent disapproved of cutting athletics. Twenty-seven percent approved.

What if the same questions were posed concerning art, or shop, music, journalism or any other specialized programs that help keep some kids interested in school? How would they stack up in a survey, and if they didn't fare well would their futures be on the line?

Either the district's alternative school is a valuable program or it isn't, and that's a decision school administrators and school board members need to make. A program's popularity shouldn't be a factor in making decisions about what's best for kids.

Gauging public sentiment on some issues has its place. But it shouldn't be used in deciding which programs are valuable and worth keeping.

Editorials in this column are the opinion of The Observer's editorial board. The board is comprised of Ron Horton, publisher; Ted Kramer, editor; Jeff Petersen, news editor; and Pierre LaBossierre, wire editor. Letters from readers, signed columns on this page and cartoons represent the opinions of the writer/artist and do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial board.