Tag Archives: Opinion

An Opinion: Why We Should Keep The Jail Open


Voters guides for the upcoming May 20 election have arrived and ballots should be showing up any day now.  Voters in Columbia County have a few candidates to decide between.  But they also have a big decision to make on whether to continue to operate the Columbia County Jail.

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners has said, in no uncertain terms, that the jail will close on June 30, 2014 if voters fail to pass Measure 5-238.

The Jail is managed by the Sheriff’s Department and currently can house 110 inmates; twenty-five of those beds are reserved for local inmates.  The rest are rented to the federal government which, according to the County Commissioners, helps subsidize the cost to incarcerate the locals.  The County faces a budget shortfall, due to decreasing O&C Forest Payments, which the County has relied on in the past to fund jail operations.  This past year the O&C funding was $600,000 (down from $2 million in 2008) and there is no O&C funding scheduled for 2015.

The levy calls for a $0.5797  per $1,000 of assessed value property tax for three years, which roughly equates to an increase of $58 on a property valued at $100,000 per year.

Columbia County voters have a history of rejecting tax levies to fund the Sheriff’s Department.  They failed to pass a levy to fund jail operations last year and have repeatedly spurned levies brought forward by Sheriff Jeff Dickerson to fund patrol deputies and other operations.  The Sheriff’s Department has continued to cut personnel; the closing of the jail would be another blow to Dickerson’s administration.

So, how will you vote when your ballot arrives in the mail this month?  Certainly asking voters to approve a measure to increase taxes is rarely popular for obvious reasons.  Like all elections, these  campaigns concerning public safety contain rhetoric from both sides of the issue, making it difficult for voters to understand the issue. Read More

An Opinion: Oregonian Article Not Fair to Vernonia Schools

A recent five-part series of articles in The Oregonian, written by Betsy Hammond, featured the Vernonia School District in Part 3.  That particular article  has caused quite a stir around our town.  Hammond’s series, titled “Empty Desks”  looked at attendance issues through out the state of Oregon and was especially critical of the Vernonia School District  administration, staff and parents.

Although the article was somewhat of a black eye for the community, it was also somewhat inaccurate in its portrayal of the Vernonia School District (VSD) and their concern about the issue.  The article ignored key factors that have led to poor attendance and brushed aside current efforts being made by the VSD to address the issue.

The article featuring Vernonia was a main topic of discussion at the February 13 Vernonia School Board meeting, as audience member Amy Ceiloha, who, she says was unfairly quoted in the article, asked if the School District would have a response to the article.  Superintendent Ken Cox said there would not be any official response, but was happy to discuss the issue, as was Elementary School Principal Aaron Miller, School Board Chair Bill Langmaid and other School Board members, most notably, Ernie Smith.  High School Principal Nate Underwood was not in attendance.

It is obvious that the VSD is aware they have an attendance problem, even though early in the Oregonian article it was inferred that the District was oblivious to the issue.  Superintendent Cox did refer to a previous Oregonian article from two years ago which identified the VSD as the second worst district in the state, behind Banks, for absenteeism.

In response to an observed problem, the VSD has instituted a new attendance policy this year which requires staff to contact parents when students  have missed 4 days, 8 days and 12 days.  Students are considered chronically absent when they miss more than 10% of school days, and the new “call policy” seems to be having a significant impact.  Elementary Principal Miller reported that attendance in kindergarten and first grade has increased from 84% last year to 92% in the first half of this year.  Chronic absenteeism has dropped from 49% to 27%.

School Board member Smith pointed out that analyzing statistics is a tricky business and that you can manipulate them in numerous ways to reach almost any conclusion you wish. Cox noted that the exact figures the Oregonian referenced were actually not available to the School District from the state, but were  in fact numbers the Oregonian created themselves based on data they collected and collated.  As Smith and Miller pointed out, with such a small base of students, (approximately 540) one student who is not attending but on the attendance roll,  can skew the data; several can skew it significantly.

The fact that two years ago The Oregonian  pointed out Vernonia’s poor absenteeism record does make a reader wonder why the Administration and School Board didn’t do something then about the issue.  But, as the Oregonian article  fails to acknowledge,  two years ago  the Vernonia School District was deep in the process of finishing construction of the new schools campus and preparing to move from their old campus to the new one.  And they were also dealing with some big fundraising, as well as yearly operation budget  shortfalls.  In other words, they had some fairly big issues already on their agenda.

One could also easily believe that, as the Oregonian article does acknowledge, attending classes in modular classrooms did have an impact on absenteeism rates.  The flip side is that school administrators probably believed that opening a brand new campus would automatically help increase attendance.

The VSD has tried to address the needs of students and boost engagement through creative programing.  The new Sustainability curriculum is innovative and progressive and the Forestry program offers training in a regionally significant employment field.  A recent grant the District received for $250,000 will help address the lack of a shop facility and expand technical training.  These are all factors that help keep students interested in attending class.

A lifestyle factor the Oregonian article mentioned as impacting attendance, hunting, should be taken with a grain of salt.  Oregon is an extremely rural state and hunting is part of the culture everywhere except Portland.  Kids take time off from school to hunt with their families all over this state.  This should  not be used as a reason that Vernonia is behind other school districts.

In reading the comments concerning the Oregonian article at their website, I was impressed with the thoughtful commentary that readers brought forward.  One concern was bullying; kids won’t go to school if they don’t feel comfortable and safe.  This is also an issue the VSD has attempted to address in a serious manner.  Students at Vernonia Schools have received numerous professional trainings and awareness programs over the last several years, thanks in part to the great work of, and funding from, the Vernonia Prevention Coalition.  Certainly we can’t say that bullying has been eliminated from our schools, but the issue is definitely on the radar and being addressed.

Another point raised in the comments is the role of parental responsibility. In the opinion of some readers, our society has embraced the passing off of raising our children, and some parents no longer take responsibility for student achievement.

This may be the biggest factor in school attendance.  As was noted at the recent Vernonia School Board meeting, school staff can only work with and teach students if they show up.  Parents need to see the value in, and encourage their children to be in class everyday, and make sure they arrive at school ready to learn.  It needs to be a priority for both the parents and the students.  How the School District can impact a parent’s values is somewhat limited.

Following the flood in 2007 and then the economic downturn, Vernonia saw a large increase in students who were, in fact, “homeless,” with parents who had moved away to find work.  Numerous students lived with friends and “couch surfed” without a strong parental influence in their life.  This factor also had an influence on attendance figures.

The Oregonian  gives the impression throughout most of the article that the VSD is unaware  they have a problem and concludes that they aren’t really all that interested in addressing it. They only briefly touch on the progress and improvements that has been made this year, and  ignore several important factors unique to Vernonia.

While the Vernonia School District needs to continue to improve their efforts in confronting absenteeism, they were attempting to address the issue, even before The Oregonian so harshly, and somewhat unfairly,  pointed it out.  Let’s hope it remains a priority and we continue to see additional improvements.

An Opinion: Council Needs to Finalize Lease With Health Board

The Vernonia City Council and the Vernonia Health Board have been working to negotiate a lease agreement for property the City controls, so the Health Board can begin construction of the new health clinic facility.  The Health Board had hoped to break ground on their new facility in early February, but after the last City Council meeting on February 18, there was still no agreement on the use of the property, and so, construction has been unable to proceed.

Both groups have been working hard over the last several months to find common ground and iron out the details of what will be a fifty year agreement.  The two sides have discussed potential uses, length of the lease, what happens if the lease ends suddenly and other, often sticky points.  One by one they have reached agreement on almost every point, although the discussions have often become somewhat contentious and personalities seem to be getting in the way.

One item the two sides haven’t agreed on yet is rent for the property, although the Health Board maintains they had an agreement for $1 per year.   This was a point of discussion by both the members of the Health Board during “Topics From the Floor” and by Council during the City Administrator Report at the February 18 meeting.   Read More

An Opinion: The Power of Listening

Recently a conversation took place on the internet that got me thinking about several things.  The discussion was held on Facebook on the Vernonia Community Bulletin Board and was started when someone suggested that community members attend a Vernonia Planning Commission meeting.

An interesting conversation emerged that went on for over a week, included over 135 separate postings and involved numerous participants.  The discussion centered on the City’s wastewater facility upgrade project and the possibility that utility rates could increase in Vernonia-again.  The conversation revealed many things.

People expressed concern, anger and outrage about the potential of higher water and sewer rates.  Others tried to explain the reality of the situation and the reason Vernonia has such high rates.  Some people encouraged citizens to become more involved.  Some said they would and  did.  People vented their frustration and a feeling of helplessness at increasing rates. Read More

An Opinion: What’s Going On?

Trails End Recovery has been working in Vernonia for the last several years doing home demolitions after FEMA flood buyouts. More recently they have been  conducting the old school site demolition.

Trails End has hired and employed several local  people during their time working in Vernonia.  They have recovered and made available to the public many items and materials at extremely reasonable prices.  They have been easy to work with and good friends to this community.  Trails End provided a low bid for deconstructing the school site and saved the Vernonia School District money in the process.

So how have at least a few member of this community chosen to repay Trails End Recovery for providing jobs for our folks?  By stealing from them and vandalizing their equipment.  Read More

An Opinion: Becoming a Vegetarian

Amanda Mikalow with part of her Senior Project.

Amanda Mikalow with part of her Senior Project.

I decided to become a vegetarian six months ago when I saw a PETA video.  PETA stands for “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” The video showed me the horrible conditions of slaughterhouses and the life of the animals we eat on a daily basis. I was devastated to see how these poor animals lived. I immediately decided to keep meat off of my plate for good.

When time came for our senior year projects at Vernonia High School I was stuck deciding on a subject to pursue. I had to write a speech, make a poster board and spend time with a mentor who would help me with my project. Then it hit me; I could teach people about the vegetarian lifestyle and the positives of living it. Read More