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Modulars the best move for kindergarten

We agree with the school board’s decision Tuesday to buy as many as four used modular buildings and install them at Brooklyn as kindergarten classrooms and a cafeteria and music room.

This isn’t the ideal solution, but we believe it is the best option.

Certainly it is the option that requires the least amount of student shuffling. Only the kindergarten classes will move — the rest of the grade levels will remain where they are.

Nor will the cost of the modulars force the school district to cut employees or programs. District officials also are confident they could sell the modulars if they become superfluous in the future.

Critics say the district instead should create space for kindergartners inside Brooklyn by moving third-graders from that school to South Baker Elementary.

But that would require that sixth-graders, who now attend South Baker, move to either Baker Middle School or to the former North Baker Elementary.

Opponents of the modulars have cited the North Baker option in particular, pointing out that there are vacant classrooms in that building.


Cover Oregon questions


We don’t mean to damn with faint praise by saying that Congressman Greg Walden’s call for a federal investigation in the Cover Oregon fiasco is an obvious political ploy.

Sometimes — and this is such a case — the obvious political ploy also happens to be necessary public policy.

And since the rest of Oregon’s congressional delegation hasn’t seemed eager to try to marshal the considerable resources of the Government Accounting Office (GAO), it was left to Walden, the only Republican among that group, to act.


More millions, for what?


We understand why U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., during his town hall meeting in Baker City last week, touted the $15 million he helped secure for the BLM’s sage grouse management plan.

The BLM’s goal — to avoid having the grouse listed as a threatened or endangered species — is one we share.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does decide next year to list the sage grouse, livestock grazing on public land — a mainstay of Baker County’s economy — could be severely curtailed, with the attendant local effects.

Yet when we pondered Merkley’s words we recognized that there was more to the senator’s statement than typical political posturing. And some of it is not worthy of boasting about.


The hazards of backcountry travel


When it comes to assessing the danger of winter travel in the Wallowa Mountains, we defer to experts such as Dave Clemens.

Clemens, who lives in Richland, has crossed the Wallowas on skis seven times during winter.

He understands avalanches.

Clemens told us this week that when he heard on Feb. 11 that an avalanche had  killed two backcountry skiers near Cornucopia, he was of course saddened.

But unlike most people, Clemens had skied the same terrain.

Clemens emphasized that no matter how much experience and knowledge a backcountry traveler has — and he has prodigious amounts of both — there is an inherent risk in skiing, or snowmobiling, through the Wallowas.

Yet Clemens also noted that knowledge and experience can, to the extent possible, reduce that risk.

Fortunately, there are resources available to help travelers, even those who lack Clemens’ experience, increase their knowledge.

The Wallowa Avalanche Center in Joseph is the most important such source. This nonprofit group doesn’t make avalanche forecasts, but it does issue a weekly bulletin about local conditions, and it offers annual avalanche training.

We encourage all backcountry visitors to avail themselves of these services. Knowledge can not only save your life, but it help avoid the need for rescuers and others risking their own lives on your behalf.


Why do feds have to build?

In an era when frugality is reality for many people and businesses, the federal government stubbornly goes against the grain.

For the feds it seems that the concepts of scrimping and making do with what you have rarely impede with governmental bricks-and-mortar ambition.

Never mind budget deficits and sluggish economic recovery — when some ostensible need arises, it seems there’s always half a million tax dollars available to erect another building.

As a current, and local, example, consider the situation of the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM.

Employees from the two federal agencies had shared office space for several years in a complex of modular buildings on 11th Street, just east of the Forest Service’s vehicle compound.

The modulars were never intended to be permanent, and in early December the Forest Service employees who worked there moved across town to the David J. Wheeler Federal Building. That structure already houses the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest headquarters.

The modulars are slated to be removed in September. BLM workers will move across H Street to the former New Tribes Mission complex — itself a former federal property that housed Air Force workers more than half a century ago.

The Forest Service, meanwhile, plans to build a new office, where the modulars stand now, at an estimated cost of $500,000.

The building will have office space for Forest Service fire officials and seasonal employees, as well as rooms for public meetings.

Although the Forest Service issued a few press releases last year announcing the planned move to the Wheeler Building, none mentioned replacing the modulars with a new office.

Moreover, the agency’s workforce in Baker City has been shrinking, not growing, over the past two decades.


Too many days off


We don’t think it’s a stretch to assume we weren’t alone in expressing surprise, and disappointment, when we learned that more than 3 in 10 Baker High School students missed at least 10 percent of the school days — at least 15 days — during the 2012-13 school year.

A recent study published by The Oregonian no doubt caused similar consternation across the state.

After poring over school attendance reports, the newspaper found that 24 percent of Oregon high school students missed at least 10 percent of the total school days that year.

That BHS students are absent more often than most of their counterparts takes a bit of the luster off another recent report that showed the high school’s graduation rate was 80 percent last year — 13 percentage points higher than the Oregon average.


A timely tire study


Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz isn’t promising to have the final word on the efficacy of studded snow tires.

But the Ontario Republican, whose legislative district includes Baker County, certainly is justified in saying that a pending study which he helped to inspire “will provide valuable information for all of us.”

Bentz, who has opposed proposed bans on studded tires in Oregon — a position we share — announced this week that the Oregon Department of Transportation will compile several national and international studies that compare the effectiveness of studded and studless snow tires on a variety of road conditions.


Keeping the public informed


Oregon’s Public Meetings Law is designed to ensure elected officials conduct their business, which is to say our business, in public forums.

The law applies to city, county and state agencies, but not to federal agencies such as the Forest Service and BLM. We note this distinction by way of setting the stage for a recent situation in which two of the three Baker County commissioners, Mark Bennett and Fred Warner Jr., met with Forest Service officials to get an update on the planned revisions of management plans for the three national forests in the Blue Mountains.

With a three-person board it takes just two to make a quorum. But the presence of a quorum doesn’t necessarily mean the gathering is a public meeting — one which the board must publicly announce in advance and which the public is entitled to attend.


Langrell: Drop mayor title, stay on as councilor


Baker City Mayor Richard Langrell, who is demanding the city reimburse him almost $15,000 in water and sewer bills he paid over the past nine years, should give up his title.

But he also should continue to serve as a city councilor, representing the people who elected him in November 2012.

In the council-manager form of government that Baker City adopted more than half a century ago, the title of mayor carries no special powers. The mayor can’t, for instance, veto a decision by his colleagues.

Basically, the mayor’s duties, beyond that of a regular councilor, are to preside over meetings and sign ordinances and other documents.


Conflict and Coles


Baker City Councilor Roger Coles should have publicly announced during the Council’s Jan. 14 meeting that his wife, Dawn, works for the Baker County YMCA.

During that meeting Roger Coles criticized City Manager Mike Kee and other city staff for failing to work with the YMCA to plan for needed repairs at Sam-O Swim Center. The city owns the swimming pool and the YMCA manages it.

To be clear, we don’t believe Councilor Coles has an actual conflict of interest in this matter.


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