Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

Residents who support the Baker School District’s proposal to seek a $48 million property tax bond to build a new school and remodel others filled the City Council chambers at City Hall Tuesday night.

The standing-room-only crowd of about 60 parents, grandparents, staff and administrators listened to 19 speakers, including Baker County Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter and District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff, tell Baker School Board members why they support the school improvement plan.

The Board is slated to decide on July 26 whether to put the tax bond measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Recommendations were presented to the Board in February by a 24-member Long Range Facilities Planning Committee that spent a year researching a multitude of issues, Superintendent Mark Witty told the crowd Tuesday. They considered ways to solve problems with building capacity, safety and security, meeting requirements of a 21st century learning environment, operational costs and energy efficiency, deferred maintenance and repair costs, providing community use of the buildings, increasing demands for new technology and limiting transitions for children and families.

Witty said his effort to get the information out to the public has included addressing about 75 groups and organizations.

Baxter and Shirtcliff spoke specifically about the plan to convert Baker High School into an instructional center to serve Grades 7-8 and Grades 9-12 at a cost of $10 million. (Baker High School can accommodate 830 students, but enrollment was 418 at the end of the past school year.)

Baxter and Shirtcliff agreed that the proposal to move middle schoolers to the high school is superior to others presented in the past because it would include a separate cafeteria and commons area for the younger students at the north end of BHS.

The two men said they had opposed earlier plans to mix younger and older students because of concerns about mandatory minimum sentencing for certain crimes, including sex crimes involving children younger than 14. Students 15 and older could face prison terms if convicted of having sexual contact with younger students, Baxter said.

“I can tell you that the separation that’s designed, I agree with. I think it protects the kids,” Baxter said.

As part of his support for the plan, he urged the 5J Board to ensure that students are made aware of the mandatory minimum sentencing law every year.

Shirtcliff said he was speaking as a dad, a coach and as the district attorney, in his support for the plan. Shirtcliff’s wife, Beth, served on the 24-member planning committee.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said of improving the schools. “It’s time to move on and get things done in this county and this school district.”

Shirtcliff, who also sits on the hospital board, joined others who talked about issues regarding recruiting people in the medical field and other occupations, such as deputy district attorneys to join him in his own office.

He said recruiting and economic development efforts are hampered by the current condition of the schools.

“I support the new construction and I support the plan,” he said.

Shirtcliff said his support also extends to moving middle school students to the high school.

And while he takes mandatory sentencing for young people and his concern for the victims seriously, Shirtcliff said he believes careful planning and supervision will help protect students.

“You can’t just separate buildings and where the younger kids are,” he said. “You have to have a continuing supervision plan and you have to build a culture around that and you have to be careful,” he said.

Hal Huntington, whose daughter, Julie Huntington, is a member of the 5J Board, added his support to the improvement plans. Julie Huntington was absent from Tuesday’s meeting because she is attending an educational trip to Costa Rica with her daughter.

“It’s been a pleasure for me to sit in on two of Mr. Witty’s presentations,” Hal Huntington said. “The more I hear about it the more I am in support of the program.

“Looking around at our facilities — it’s time,” he said. “I’ve heard some negative things based on past regimes. In my opinion, trust is earned. I trust the folks who are on this committee. I support their findings. And to give you some perspective, I graduated from high school in 1956. It’s time that we move on.”

See more in the June 20, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.