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Hearts go out to Binghams


In the early hours of Thursday at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., Dr. Katz Meada did something that, even in this era of miraculous medical procedures, we scarcely can believe is possible.

Just a few hours after he was photographed with his arm around 9-year-old Lindsey Bingham’s shoulders, the surgeon reached into Lindsey’s chest, extracted the diseased heart the Baker County girl was born with, and replaced it with a healthy heart.

That Lindsey’s life was saved on Valentine’s Day, the holiday most directly associated with hearts, is of course a mere coincidence, though indeed quite a happy one.

It was fitting, too, that the most jubilant response was from Lindsey herself, who, on learning that her 239-day ordeal of depending on a mechanical device to keep her alive was ending, screamed her joy in a moment her dad, Jason, captured on video (you can watch the video, and get updates on the Bingham family, on their blog, www.jasonandstacybingham.blogspot.com).

But for the Bingham family, this landmark event is neither the first of its kind, nor, sadly, is is guaranteed to be the last.

Lindsey suffers from the same malady, dilated cardiomyopathy, that afflicted her older sister, Sierra.

Sierra, now 13, who is the eldest of the Binghams’ five children, received her new heart in 2006.

Each of the three other children — Gage, 4, Hunter, 6, and Megan, 11 — has been diagnosed with potential heart problems, although it’s not known whether any will need a transplant.

Gage had a pacemaker installed last summer.

Sierra continues to do well with her “new” heart.

And of course we hope for an equally happy outcome for Lindsey.

But we also hope this is the last time one of the Binghams has to celebrate the arrival of a new, healthy heart.


BHS plan benefits 8th-graders


We were initially leery about the prospect of having eighth-graders, many of whom are 13 years old, attending Baker High School with students as much as six years older.

But after looking over the details of a proposal by the Baker School District, we believe the benefits of allowing a relatively small number of eighth-graders take some, but not all, of their classes at BHS are worth pursuing, as long as the parents and administrators work to minimize the risks.

Our conclusion is based largely on the limited nature of the proposal, which the Baker School Board continues to study.

The district won’t be turning BHS into a five-year school. Eighth-graders won’t have lockers just down the hall from seniors. Middle schoolers won’t be riding with 18-year-olds to McDonald’s for lunch.

Superintendent Walt Wegener said the district would achieve one of its goals — creating classroom space at Baker Middle School — if as few as 30 eighth-graders, with their parents’ permission, traveled to BHS for a few classes each day.

This would not be an entirely new program, by the way.

A handful of eighth-graders are taking either math or language arts classes at BHS this year.

The advantages are significant — eighth-graders can get an early start on their high school requirements, allowing them to begin accumulating college credits, or even to obtain an associate’s degree, before graduating from BHS.

The savings can be considerable not only in time but in money — Wegener estimates students could pare as much as $50,000 from their college expenses by earning an associate’s degree while in high school.

All well and good.

But what about the concerns expressed by Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff, Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter, and local attorney Robert Moon in a recent letter to the editor?

They fear that allowing eighth-graders to share classrooms and hallways with older students would increase the risk of sexual relationships development.

And these legal experts point out that a student from the ages of 16 to 19 who has a sex with a 13-year-old could be convicted of a crime that, under Oregon law, requires a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 75 months.

This is a valid concern.

But of course it’s valid regardless of how the 13-year-old and the, say, 18-year-old become acquainted.

Teenagers, after all, don’t restrict their socializing to when they’re at school.

There’s no evidence that the current situation, with five eighth-graders taking a class or two at the high school, has resulted in inappropriate, and felonious, relationships between students.

And we don’t believe that adding a couple dozen more eighth-graders to that roster would result in an appreciable increase in the risk.

To be clear, we don’t intend to diminish the concerns that Shirtcliff, Baxter and Moon expressed in their letter.

We applaud them, in fact, for raising awareness about an important topic.

We encourage students and their parents to heed the warnings and to recognize that the ramifications of inappropriate sexual relationships can be legal as well as emotional and physical — whether those relationships occur inside a school or elsewhere.


Cake flap won’t gain legal rights


There is at first glance a certain gastronomic symmetry between Oregon’s recent flap over a gay couple who wanted to buy a wedding cake, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

One of the great symbols of the latter was, of course, the lunch counter — specifically, the prevalence of “whites only” restaurant sections in the Deep South.

But given anything more than a cursory look, the validity of this comparison withers.

For one thing, the segregated lunch counter, and other restricted public accommodations, were the norm in those days, whereas we know of only one Oregon bakery whose owners won’t bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

For another, the activists who defied the lunch counter segregation had as their ultimate goal guaranteeing for themselves fundamental rights, chief among them suffrage and access to public universities, which are not denied to Americans based on their sexual orientation.

Aaron Klein, who owns Sweet Cakes bakery in Gresham with his wife, Melissa, said he refused to make a cake for Laurel Bowman and her fiancée because he’s a Christian and he doesn’t think gay couples should be able to legally marry. Klein said this wasn’t the first time he has declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Bowman’s decision to file a formal complaint against Klein with the Oregon Attorney General over a wedding cake, a product readily available at dozens of businesses in the Portland area, seems to us a clumsy attempt to achieve the worthwhile goal of securing for gay couples the same legal rights, such as hospital visitations, afforded to heterosexual couples who are married.

The dispute over the wedding cake does, though, raise an interesting question about what seems to us a conflict between Oregon’s Constitution and one of its laws.

Here’s what the Constitution says: “No law shall in any case whatever control the free exercise, and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

But then there’s a law passed in 2007, ORS 659A.403: “all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation, without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status....”

The law’s definition of public accommodations includes private businesses.

The Constitution seems to us intended to protect Klein’s right to express his religious opinions by, for instance, not making a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage.

Yet the law makes it clear that if he bakes wedding cakes for heterosexual couples — which he does — then he can’t refuse to do the same for a gay couple because they’re gay.

The ideal solution to this apparent legal conundrum is not to be found in a courtroom or in the Attorney General’s office, however.

What’s needed is a dollop of tolerance.

Bowman and her fiancée should tolerate Klein’s constitutional right to adhere to his religious views.

And by doing so, of course, Klein loses not only the couple hundred dollars the couple would have spent on a cake, but an unknown amount of money from other potential customers who no doubt will patronize a different bakery because they don’t agree with Klein’s stance on gay marriage.

Ultimately, we think gay couples will be more likely to gain the legal rights they want, and deserve, by focusing their efforts on legislative and electoral remedies rather than worrying about one bakery.


Dealing with bullies


We’ll never know, with absolute certainty, why Jadin Bell, a 15-year-old sophomore at La Grande High School, decided to end his life.

But we know that he had not hidden that he was gay.

More importantly, we know he complained that he had been bullied recently at school.

That bullying can play a role in pushing teenagers to attempt suicide is beyond dispute.

The risk is considerably greater for young men, who are six times more likely to die by suicide than young women are.

As we assess the terrible equation that sometimes results in a teen’s death, some elements will likely forever remain beyond our grasp.

But bullying we can do something about.

Which is not to say we can eliminate it.

That some people enjoy humiliating and intimidating others — in particular those who are “different” in some way — is a sad fact of human nature.

Yet we must not ignore bullies or even trivialize them, either of which response is tantamount to condoning their actions.

We must instead subject bullies to the same harsh light of unwanted attention which they cast on their victims.

We must punish bullies, both by disciplinary measures at school and through legal means if they commit crimes.

We must make them understand, as best we can, that what they think of as innocuous heckling can in fact have dire consequences.

Indeed, sometimes fatal ones.

And that, even if you ultimately decide you need to deliver a heartfelt apology to the person you demeaned, you might never get the chance.

And finally, we must recognize that bullies’ bravado often is bluster, an attempt by a person who feels powerless to exert control over others.

Multiple studies show that many bullies suffer from the same problems that make their targets vulnerable, chief among these being low self-esteem. 

Reducing the incidence of bullying by helping bullies see the error of their ways, in addition to punishing them, would be the ideal result.


High marks for schools


The crisis afflicting Oregon’s public education system looks pretty severe if you take a statewide view of the matter.

But narrow your perspective to focus on Baker County and North Powder schools, and you’ll have more reason to be pleased rather than dismayed.

The vast majority of students in our local public high schools earn their diploma within the normal four-year period.

Baker High School’s four-year graduation rate, for instance, was almost 78 percent for the 2011-12 academic year.

That’s 10 percentage points better than the Oregon average.

(And, incidentally, Baker High’s graduation rate equals the most recently calculated national average, for 2010, which is the highest in almost 40 years.)

In a related statistic, and one that’s also worth celebrating, fewer than 1 percent of BHS students dropped out of school last year — just five of 535 teenagers.

Pine-Eagle, North Powder and Burnt River schools posted even higher graduation rates. And Baker County’s other district, Huntington, had six of eight students graduate within four years, although a record-keeping discrepancy, related to the district’s discontinued exchange student program, resulted in an official graduation rate of just 38 percent.

The story behind the numbers is that with rare exceptions, our students don’t get left behind, or fall through the cracks, or any of the other clichés typically used to explain failures.

They earn their diplomas and in doing so vastly increase their chances of going on to a productive career and life.

Much of the credit goes of course to the students, who write the papers and take the tests and do the homework, and to their parents and guardians, who make sure their children are fed and clothed and ready to learn.

But these statistics are a tribute as well to our schools and to the professionals who work in them.

To ensure that most of our children successfully reach the vital milestone of graduating from high school requires a consistent effort in our homes and our classrooms.

We are fortunate indeed to live in an area where failure in this crucial endeavor is not treated as inevitable.


Tax on tires?


The campaign to curb the use of studded tires on Oregon highways rolls on.

When legislators convene Monday for the 2013 session in Salem, they’ll have at least three bills to consider.

Two would add a fee for each studded tire sold in the state. HB 2278 sets a $10 per tire fee, and HB 2397 calls for a fee to be established later.

HB 2277 would require drivers to obtain a permit before driving with studded tires. The state would calculate the cost of the permit by dividing the estimated cost of damage to roads caused by studded tires, by the number of vehicles equipped with such tires.

HB 2277 deserves a categorical rejection. Gauging damage caused by studded tires is little more than a educated guess.

HB 2278, though, has merit.

Although we’re studded tire supporters, it can’t be denied that these tires accelerate the wear of pavement compared with non-studded tires.

A modest fee — we like 5 bucks a tire rather than 10 — would help to pay that extra cost without putting studded tires out of financial reach for Oregonians who benefit from their unique qualities.


Tired of 5J board's discord


It would require a considerable level of naívete on our part to expect the Baker School Board, after more than a year of regular acrimony, to suddenly embrace a spirit of unity.

We don’t expect, as the cliché goes, board meetings to conclude with a rousing rendition of Kumbaya.

Yet even after a period that included the vote to censure board member Kyle Knight, a failed attempt to recall board members Lynne Burroughs and Mark Henderson, and Knight’s lawsuit against the district (which was settled in December), we do expect more from our elected board members — on both sides of this ongoing dispute — than they demonstrated last week.

The occasion was the extension of Superintendent Walt Wegener’s contract. The board voted 3-2 to add one year to Wegener’s deal, which now continues until June 30, 2015.

Although we don’t think Wegener needs a three-year contract — two years offers him sufficient security — the board’s decision to tack on another year is not unreasonable.

The same can’t be said, though, for parts of the written performance evaluation of Wegener that Henderson and fellow board member Andrew Bryan compiled, and that they and Burroughs approved. Henderson and Bryan recommended in the report that the board extend Wegener’s contract through June 30, 2015. Burroughs, Henderson and Bryan voted in favor of that extension.

One passage in particular in the report seems to us unnecessary and inflammatory. In the section headlined “Additional Comments,” Henderson and Bryan wrote: 

“Our strongest recommendation is for Walt to specifically disengage as much as possible from the ongoing pressures of board members with agendas, divergent philosophies of district administration, or lack of fundamental understandings with board function and administrative rules.”

In other words, Wegener ought to ignore the two board members — Knight and Jim Longwell, who aren’t mentioned by name and don’t need to be, so obvious is the inference — because they don’t agree with everything Wegener does.

Besides being bad advice, this recommendation insults residents of the district who support Knight and Longwell and expect them to act as effective representatives on the school board.

Which bears directly on our other complaint.

Knight and Longwell, though they voted against the motion to extend Wegener’s contract, did not participate in evaluating him.

Longwell declined to say why he didn’t do so.

That’s not acceptable — our elected officials have a responsibility to explain their actions, or inactions, to their constituents.

Knight at least offers an explanation, pointing out that during his nearly nine-month censure he didn’t receive Wegener’s weekly reports.

But that excuse rings hollow.

Knight has attended meetings during that time, and since he feels that he is sufficiently well-versed on district operations to vote against extending Wegener’s contract, he ought to be able to explain why.


Action, not words, on PERS


The parameters of the coming debate over PERS, Oregon’s budget-busting retirement system for state workers and many local government and school employees, are beginning to clarify.

And it looks to us increasingly likely that Oregonians will at long last find out whether Gov. John Kitzhaber truly is committed to reforming this system, or whether his pledges were mere posturing.

We hope it’s the former.

If the Oregon Legislature lacks the political courage to deal with PERS, then the retirement system will continue to force school districts to lay off teachers, and cities, counties and the state to pare services, all to ensure that retired public employees, who are the beneficiaries of one of the most generous pension plans in the country, don’t lose so much as a penny from their compensation.

On average, starting July 1, about $1 in every $5 that public agencies spend will go toward PERS. That average is higher still — 26.7 percent — for school districts.

In his proposed budget, Kitzhaber suggests a pair of changes to PERS that could save hundreds of millions of dollars:

• Stop compensating PERS retirees who live outside Oregon for Oregon income taxes they don’t even pay because they don’t live here.

• Allow cost-of-living adjustments for only the first $24,000 of retirees’ annual income.

Those amendments wouldn’t fix PERS — too many elements of the system, and in particular certain benefits which accrue only to Tier 1 employees, those hired before 1996, are locked in by contractual obligations.

But Kitzhaber believes that both of his proposals are in play, legally speaking.

But at least one of the state’s two big public employees unions begs to differ with the governor.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents about 24,000 workers (the Service Employees International Union represents a similar number of public employees in the state), opposes both of Kitzhaber’s ideas.

Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75, told the editorial board of The Oregonian that he believes the cap on cost-of-living raises would be overturned in court.

Put simply, it appears probable that public employee unions, who are major supporters of Kitzhaber and other Democratic candidates, will contest any PERS reforms that cut into their members’ (or, more accurately, retired former members’) monthly pension checks.

We would hardly expect a different reaction from the unions, of course; they’re supposed to look out for their members.

But we’re far more concerned with keeping Oregon’s public schools and other vital services intact.

And protecting those government services will require meaningful action on reforming PERS, rather than empty rhetoric, from Kitzhaber and the Democrats who are in charge in Salem.


I-84 isn’t a unique hazard


It comes as no surprise to local residents that the stretch of Interstate 84 between Meacham and Pendleton can be slippery during winter.

Of course this is equally true for the entire 165-mile section of the freeway between Pendleton and the Idaho border, as well as for every other street, county road and state highway in Baker County.

That being the case, the recent spate of publicity regarding the tragic bus crash on I-84 that killed nine passengers on Dec. 30, though understandable and potentially worthwhile as a warning to the public, also seems to us riddled with exaggerations about the lethality of certain parts of the freeway.

There is nothing uniquely hazardous about the place where the Canadian tour bus careened off the freeway.

Although many news reports have focused on the 6-percent grade and curves of Cabbage Hill, which is nearby, the bus driver, who according to an eyewitness was driving much too fast for the icy and foggy conditions, lost control on a section that’s essentially flat and straight.

But even when the pavement is dry a seemingly innocuous section of road can be dangerous if the driver is careless.

Media accounts have emphasized the treacherous conditions not only on Cabbage Hill, but also through the Ladd Canyon pass that separates the North Powder and Grande Ronde valleys, about 30 miles north of Baker City.

Indeed, both places can be tricky to negotiate in winter.

We wonder, though, whether these dramatic descriptions, connected to a terrible accident that in fact didn’t happen in either place, might mislead travelers into believing the freeway is to be avoided.

The truth, as any longtime local could tell you, is that similar conditions prevail at times every winter on secondary roads throughout the region.

The main difference between the interstate and, say, Highway 245 over Dooley Mountain, Highway 86 over the Halfway Grade, or Highway 203 through Medical Springs, is that those state routes are lightly traveled, which means help, should you need it, might be some time in arriving.

The best advice, of course, is to be prepared for trouble regardless of your route, and to drive with particular caution whenever wintry weather is possible. 

These preparations pertain not only to vehicles — properly inflated tires, traction devices and the like — but to the driver as well. Driver fatigue might have been a factor in the deadly Dec. 30 crash.


New use for a very old trail


It’s no small feat to get a trail built in the woods these days.

Unless, of course, the trail is pretty much built already.

Just such a situation exists in Baker and Grant counties. And all the heavy work happened more than a century ago.

The Sumpter Valley Railway Mainline Trail is a worthwhile proposal that we hope happens, and as soon as this spring when the snow melts.

The project’s main advantage, as we alluded to, is that the 42-mile route connecting the Sumpter Valley Dredge and Bates state parks is no mere concept, existing only on paper.

Rather, the proposed route follows the grade built for the Sumpter Valley Railroad, the famous “Stump Dodger” narrow-gauge line that hauled gold ore and ponderosa pine logs from the Blue Mountains to Baker City.

The 42-mile section was built between 1896, when the railroad reached Sumpter, and 1910, when the rails got to their final terminus at Prairie City.

Karen Spencer, director of the Baker County Parks Department and one of the trail’s proponents, said that relatively little trail building would be needed, as the grade remains in remarkably good shape considering its age.

The biggest task, she said, would be to clear trees and brush, and to install signs.

Spencer said the Powder River Correctional Facility has offered the use of inmate crews at the rate of $70 per crew per day, a significant savings over the regular charge of $590 per day.

About 90 percent of the proposed route is on public land, including parts of the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.

As for the 10 percent that’s privately owned, Spencer said trail promoters intend to try to negotiate easements or other agreements with landowners that would allow the trail to cross their properties.

However, if any property owners decline to participate, the trail would be re-routed around their land, probably by way of one of the many spur lines that branched off the Sumpter Valley Railroad mainline.

Some sections of that mainline were turned into roads many decades ago.

Those roads would remain as they are, with motor vehicles allowed on sections that are open now, Spencer said.

Other sections, where the original railroad grade remains, would be open for non-motorized travel, including hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and, in the winter, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

Besides adding to the recreational opportunities in the area, the Sumpter Valley Railroad trail would draw attention to a fascinating part of the region’s history.

That these two goals can be accomplished for relatively little cost, and without displacing existing recreationists or affecting private property, adds to our enthusiasm for this project. Finally, the trail will be a fitting tribute to the men who toiled to build the railroad, all of them decades in their graves.


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