Up Close, with Peter Sage: Observations and commentary on American politics and culture.

Curious incident at County County Commission event. In the midst of the Trump whirlwind, an oasis of calm and sanity.

Two candidates. Eight questions from the floor.  There was one curious incident: There were 46 minutes of political discussion, without a single mention of Trump.

That was the curious incident.

Two candidates for County Commissioner met in my home and talked about their campaigns and the issues facing the county. They are both Democrats, running for two seats on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners held by Republicans. Lanita Witt is a rural landowner and retired physician. Amy Thuren is a nonprofit agency executive director, currently a charter school principal, previously head of the local Red Cross chapter and Consumer Counseling center.

It was a standard meet-and-greet event. Name tags, one-on one visits; wine and cheese and fizzy water; introduction of distinguished guests; speeches by the candidates; Q & A; a fundraising pitch; back to visiting. It is the bedrock campaign event in a local campaign.

The event went without incident, except for the hardest thing to notice: what did not happen. It wasn't about Trump. It was about the problems facing Jackson County, Oregon.

The candidates talked about:

1. Forest fires. The air on Sunday hit the "hazardous" level in Medford, and is currently "unhealthy." Many guests wore breathing masks. It is miserable to live and it is hurting the tourist industry, including the very visible Shakespeare Festival theater. The two candidates talked about forest management needs and how this might reduce forest fires.

2. Homeless people are living in downtown Medford and in the park-like riparian zone along the creek that runs through the Bear Creek valley. Local citizens created a 20-mile Greenway park and bicycle path through the center of the county. Homeless people camp in it. They start fires and leave trash and create a use conflict with joggers and bicyclists. The two candidates talked about the problems of managing that problem with programs in mental health and affordable housing.

3. LNG Pipeline. There is a proposal to ship natural gas from the Rocky Mountain to the west coast Port of Coos Bay, via a trunk pipeline, which would pass through Jackson County. Many local residents consider it invasive and dangerous, and resent the idea that eminent domain would be used to get easements for the benefit of a private company. Both candidates talked about why they oppose it.

4. Cascade-Siskiyou Monument. The area contains merchantable timber and there is controversy of the appropriate size of this bio-diverse area. Both candidates support maintaining its current size.

5. Need for a new jail. The current jail was built 35 years ago, when I was County Commissioner. I had advocated for a large size, with growing room. We badly underestimated the time it would take to outgrow it. Moreover, when we built it seismic issues were essentially unknown here. Now we know. We experienced a modest earthquake some 25 years ago, to the surprise of nearly everyone, and a potential "Big One" in the form of a Cascade Subduction earthquake is now top of mind. Jails are expensive to build and staff. The candidates talked about jail space needs.

6. Nonprofit/county coordination. Some of the public service work that might be done by county employees--especially addiction treatment--is done under contract with local nonprofit agencies. One of these, OnTrack, underwent personnel changes then disruption. The candidates talked about the addiction programs and organization to carry them out.

7. Adding hydro-electric power to the agricultural irrigation canals. The area has old high-elevation irrigation lakes which feed the agricultural land on the valley floor. There is some 3,000 in elevation drop and hydropower retrofitting would address the canal-leakage problem plus provide a revenue source. The candidates discussed the feasibility of this retrofitting.

7. Other mentions: 4-H programs, economic development programs, rehabilitation of Hawthorne Park, farm products, individualized instruction in schools, the county airport, and at the very end in one-on-one discussions, marijuana cultivation and sale.

Summary and takeaway: 

Normal political life continues. Donald Trump dominates the national political news, but the there is another level of government taking place almost without notice. It is the serious day to day business of providing the services that make a community possible. Water and sewer systems, law enforcement, jails, probation programs, the court system, restaurant inspections, public health systems, rural roads and zoning, and the money from property taxes to pay for these and other services do not just happen. This is what local government provides.

And that is what the candidates for county commissioner talked about, the serious business of day to day government. Not Trump.

Democracy still works.

Event: Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Valley School's Next Move: Expansion

BY  Kaylee Tornay of the Mail Tribune June 28, 2018

Medford’s youngest charter school is growing into a new phase.

The Valley School of Southern Oregon, a Montessori middle school that has operated since 2015-2016, is looking to move into the former home of Living Opportunities, a 2.95-acre property on Valley View Drive.

With that move comes an increase in the school’s enrollment: Its new charter with the Medford School District, approved by the Medford School Board June 4, bumps its enrollment cap from 100 to 120.

Amy Thuren, executive director of The Valley School, said staff “are very excited.”

“We’re a Montessori school, and gardening and outdoors are a big component and something we’ve been missing the last three years,” she said. “We’re looking forward to using the outdoor space and creating a gardening program.”

Thuren said the enrollment increase will better fit the school’s model of four “tribes,” or smaller communities within the student body.

Since its establishment, The Valley School has been located in Cobblestone Village at 1253 N. Riverside Ave. The site formerly housed restaurants, so students have worked together in booths and used the commercial-grade kitchen to cook lunches.

In its work with the school to arrive at a charter, the Medford School District urged leaders to increase the diversity of its student body. In 2016-2017, the student body was 88 percent white, with 7 percent Hispanic students making up the next biggest racial category. Students with disabilities made up 8 percent, and 20 percent of students were considered economically disadvantaged.

In comparison, sixth- through eighth-graders in the Medford School District were 67 percent white and 24 percent Hispanic/Latino, 71 percent economically disadvantaged and 14 percent students with disabilities.

Thuren said that while The Valley School plans to increase advertising to spread wider awareness of the school’s presence in the district, the fact that the entry lottery is weighted in favor of siblings of current students, “it’ll take a little while to change that.”

Among incoming sixth-graders, 30 percent were siblings of enrolled students, she said.

Personal connections have been a key aspect of the school’s process, from its beginning in 2015 up through last year, when school leaders were first considering trying to acquire the property used by Living Opportunities, a nonprofit aimed at supporting those with disabilities. Thuren said the school couldn’t afford to purchase the property, so members of the school community worked together to find a buyer who would then lease the building back to them.

They got their chance to move into the new building, Thuren said, in January, when a buyer was found. She didn’t name the buyer and said the deal would close in July. Jackson County property records still list the property as belonging to Living Opportunities. The county places the property’s real market value at $479,810.

The improvements planned include asbestos removal. The school will use a grant from the Walton Foundation and conduct fundraising to pay for the project, Thuren said. The city of Medford’s Planning Commission is considering the school’s application for a conditional use permit to make other modifications.

“One of the biggest things I hear from parents is, ‘We’re excited to move, but don’t make it look traditional,’” Thuren said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.