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"It's all wrong" — Blossom Gulch Elementary is sinking
This is what it looks like when an elementary school sinks

COOS BAY — Blossom Gulch Elementary is sinking.

This is the most problematic building in the Coos Bay School District. It was built on the former site of “Blossom’s Logging Camp” in 1954, a marsh that was packed with fill dirt. Not only does the building hold 600 children, but due to failing foundations the hallways don’t sit flat, stairs are separating from the pavement, and pipes are being crushed.

“This school is not ADA compliant,” said building principal, Linda Vickrey. “We have a student in the second grade who is in a wheelchair. Our floors aren’t flat, so he’s a strong little guy because his wheelchair isn’t motorized. If people don’t push him, he wheels himself around.”

But this isn’t even the worst of the problems for the elementary school.

In January, district maintenance manager Rick Roberts provided The World with a complete list of future maintenance needs for Blossom Gulch, which included:

  • siding repairs/replacement
  • door and hardware replacement
  • window replacement
  • exterior painting
  • sidewalk/stairs replacement
  • parking lot repairs
  • heating system upgrades/replacements
  • gym/cafeteria roof replacement
  • plumbing replacements
  • asbestos pipe insulation abatement
  • waste line replacement
  • electrical capacity upgrades
  • technology cabling upgrades
  • ADA upgrades
  • asbestos floor tile abatement
  • seismic upgrades
  • foundation stabilization

“When you experience the building every day, you get desensitized,” Roberts said in a previous interview. “When you ask what's wrong, well . . . it's all wrong.”

“The bottom line is this place isn’t stable,” Vickrey said. “We’ve replaced the sewer line over the summer because it had collapsed some. It’s problematic and costs the district money just doing repairs. We struggle to keep up with technology because there aren’t enough connection points, wall materials don’t always allow wireless hotspots to connect to the internet. We’re already maxed out on space and just took in another five or six kids this morning.”

The campus has one modular building, but even that has been split into two classrooms.

Over the summer, maintenance staff had to fill in gaps between stairs and the building, a job that has become an annual chore.

“They do some work with concrete where the steps and doorways settled in spots,” said district Superintendent Bryan Trendell. “They’ll put concrete in and by the next summer it’s settled a bit more, which means they add more concrete in to stabilize it.”

One of the most frustrating problems that Blossom Gulch poses is its inability to accommodate new technology. The district has purchased new teaching tools, such as Chrome Books, but teachers struggle to use them because the classrooms only have four electrical sockets.

First grade teacher Nicole Ault has had to cut out a hole in a bookcase in order to reach the socket behind it, shifting books around every time she wants to switch out plugs.

Not only that, but temperatures can’t be regulated in the classrooms. The only source of heating are old wall heaters beneath single pane windows, which provide no insulation from the outside. Some of these heaters work well, but get the classrooms too hot, while some don’t work hardly at all. In the winter, teachers have been known to bring in their own space heaters.

“Kids wear coats in class sometimes,” Vickrey said.

Fearing the Cascadia quake

Though Blossom Gulch Elementary has an endless list of problems for students, educators and district administrators, none are as serious as the safety concerns.

The Southern Oregon coast has braced for the anticipated 9.2 Cascadia earthquake and resulting tsunami for decades. Gov. Kate Brown even declared Oct. 19 the “Great Oregon ShakeOut Day” to remind the public to be 2 Weeks prepared, meaning people should know how to handle a disaster two hours after, two weeks after, and even two months after.

The U.S. Coast Guard has told The World during Cascadia simulations that Coos County should prepare to be isolated for up to six months after the quake.

Vickrey finds it especially terrifying because Blossom Gulch Elementary sits in the tsunami inundation zone, sometimes called the liquefaction zone. Because of this, the district is unable to secure grants from the state to help with building maintenance or to rebuild the school entirely.

“It’s scary,” Vickrey said. “You think about what would really happen because we’re in a tsunami area, the ground is sinking, then you look at the power lines and the trees and wonder how are you going to get 600 children and 50 adults out of the building quickly and safely?”

When the earthquake hits, Blossom Gulch’s emergency plan tells kids and adults to evacuate to the Marshfield High School campus nearby. However, worst case scenario only gives people a few seconds to run to high ground after the initial earthquake, depending on where the epicenter is, before the tsunami hits.

Because of that tight timespan, Vickrey also plans on at least getting her 600 students to Ferguson Street. Blossom Gulch sits at 15 feet above sea level, but Ferguson takes them to 44 feet in elevation.

“You don’t know how much time you have to run,” she said. “It’s my biggest worry.”

Though this is on everyone’s minds at Blossom Gulch, the building is also ill equipped to undergo emergency lock downs as well. Last year the school was put under two lock downs, one due to Coos Bay Police chasing down a man who was wanted for assault.

“When you go into lockdown, teachers are supposed to close the blinds, block the windows so no one can see in,” Ault said. “Most of our windows in the building have blinds that are 50 to 60 years old and the ropes have fallen and not been repaired, though some have been replaced or restrung.”

Some classrooms have no draperies or shade, so when you walk around the school you can see into the classrooms. Because of this, teachers had taped construction paper on the windows so people can’t see in.

“This is a concern for us too,” Ault said.

As for the Coos Bay BEST Bond that’s on the Nov. 7 election ballot, asking the public for $59.9 million off property taxes over 25 years, Vickrey hopes it passes.

“It’s time,” she said. “Our kids deserve it. Everyone deserves a quality school that is up to standards.”

If the bond passes, it would allow the district to rebuild the Eastside School to move all students out of Blossom Gulch into a new building in a safer part of town.

“I remember when the district first asked for a bond in 2006 and thinking it would never pass in this area,” Ault said. “Then when the district asked for another bond in May, voters started to read about the problems and think about the future of education here. I hope this third time around it passes because when it comes down to it, our kids deserve better.”

Spain cracks down hard after Catalonia declares independence

BARCELONA, Spain — In one of the most momentous days in recent Spanish history, Spain fired Catalonia's regional government and dissolved its parliament Friday after a defiant Catalan declaration of independence that flouted the country's constitution.

Lawmakers in the Catalan parliament voted to unilaterally declare independence, prompting the swift crackdown by the Spanish government, which also called an early election in the region.

Hours after Catalonia's secession move, the Spanish Senate granted the government special constitutional powers to stop the wealthy region's move toward independence.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government then called an urgent Cabinet meeting late Friday, after which Rajoy emerged to announce the emergency measures, including regional elections called for Dec. 21.

In Barcelona, Catalonia's regional capital, Rajoy's announcement in a televised address was greeted with jeers and whistles of disapproval from crowds who had gathered at the gates of the government palace to celebrate their parliament's moves toward independence.

"It's not about suspending or meddling in the self-government (of Catalonia), but to return it to normality and legality as soon as possible," Rajoy said.

The government and Spain's Constitutional Court have both said the secession bid was illegal, and after Friday's independence vote, Rajoy said it was a move that "not only goes against the law but is a criminal act."

Rajoy also said he was firing the head of the Catalan regional police, shutting down the Catalan government's overseas offices, and dismissing its representatives in Madrid and in Brussels, where the European Union has its headquarters.

The Senate's decision giving Rajoy special powers trumped the Catalan regional parliament's vote to secede, which was doomed because the Constitutional Court has already consistently ruled against any steps toward independence.

The battle around Catalonia's future is far from over, however.

Madrid's move to take away Catalonia's regional powers was sure to be seen as a humiliation and a provocation by Catalans and a backlash was expected, with planned street protests and the possibility that regional government workers could follow a policy of disobedience or non-cooperation.

On top of that, the Dec. 21 election could deliver a steadfastly pro-independence Catalan parliament, even if recent polls have suggested the region of 7.5 million people is roughly evenly split on secession.

Many Catalans strongly oppose independence and a group of so-called unionists was organizing a large-scale protest in Barcelona on Sunday.

A spokesman for Spain's prosecutor's office, meanwhile, said it would seek to bring rebellion charges against those responsible for the Catalan independence vote.

The tense day, featuring emotional speeches and scenes of joy and despair, went to the heart of Spain's political and cultural history.

The 1978 constitution, drawn up after the end of Gen. Francisco Franco's decades-long dictatorship, created a decentralized Spanish state that devolved power to 17 autonomous regions, including Catalonia. The regions have broad administrative and legal powers. The Spanish constitution, however, also describes Spain as "indivisible."

Catalonia has its own cultural traditions and its own language. Having long seen itself as different from the rest of Spain, the Catalan drive for independence began in 2010 when the Constitutional Court struck down key parts of a groundbreaking charter that would have granted the region greater autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.

Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain's gross domestic product and many want the tax revenues generated by the prosperous region to remain at home.

The motion to secede was approved by the 135-member Catalan parliament, where secessionists hold a slim majority, with 70 votes in favor. Opposition lawmakers had walked out of the chamber in protest ahead of the vote.

After the vote officials and lawmakers let loose cries of "Freedom!"

In an emotional scene, regional leader Carles Puigdemont called on cheering fellow separatists to remain peaceful.

"In the days ahead we must keep to our values of pacifism and dignity. It's in our, in your hands, to build the republic," Puigdemont said.

Outside parliament, thousands who had gathered cheered the news, some dancing and raising a toast. In Barcelona, people crowded around TV sets to watch the historic events unfold. The famous Sant Jaume Square outside the regional government office was packed with thousands of people celebrating. Many were draped with the "Estelada" flag that adds a blue triangle to the red and yellow Catalan flag and has become a symbol of the separatist struggle.

The exhilaration was short-lived. Some 300 miles to the southwest, the Senate in Madrid voted by an overwhelming margin of 214 to 47 in favor of granting the government exceptional powers.

The main opposition Socialist and pro-business Citizens parties support Rajoy's stance on Catalonia, and many Spaniards outside the region are scornful of Catalonia's secession ambitions.

Rajoy has also received support from outside Spain, with other European leaders, including Germany, France and Britain, rejecting Catalonia's claims. The U.S. administration also backed Rajoy, after President Donald Trump last month branded the Catalan independence ballot as "foolish."

Bethany Baker, The World 

Marshfield's Jazmin Chavez runs in the cross country championships at William M. Tugman State Park in Lakeside on Thursday. Chavez placed first in the meet and will head to the state championships on Nov. 4 in Eugene.

Measure 101 worries healthcare industry

COOS COUNTY — Come January, Oregon voters will have to decide if they want to overturn a health care tax plan approved by the legislature this summer to address a funding gap in the state’s Medicaid program.

The taxes were an effort to keep hundreds of thousands of low-income Oregonians on the Oregon Health Plan by addressing budget shortfalls through a 1.5 percent assessment on health insurance and .7 percent assessment on hospitals and coordinated care organizations.

A “yes” vote on Measure 101 would keep the taxes passed by lawmakers, a “no” vote would reject portions of the tax.

Phil Greenhill, CEO of Western Oregon Advanced Health (WOAH), said there will be a significant cost to the state of Oregon if the "no" votes carry the ballot.

He said WOAH could lose as much as 30 percent of its funding.

That would reduce the number of patients the coordinated care organization is able to serve, which could mean 6,000 Coos County residents going without insurance coverage.

Statewide, supporters of the assessments say up to 350,000 poor Oregonians could be kicked off the taxpayer-funded insurance plan.

Referendum 301 first came into play earlier this year, when Republican lawmakers filed paperwork to bring the revenue-gathering measures introduced in House Bill 2391 to a vote.

“By definition, this section is a sales tax on healthcare, and worse, it’s a sales tax only for those who buy their insurance in the marketplace. Large corporations and unions will be held harmless from a sales tax on health insurance,” Julie Parrish (R-Tualatin/West Linn) said in a prepared statement in July, when the referendum was first suggested.

Opponents like Parrish argue that the taxation on insurance carriers will increase consumers’ premiums and assert that there are other ways to fund the budget shortfalls. One proposal was reforming how public employees get their healthcare.

Paul Phillips, president of communications firm Pac/West, said the legislature spent six months deliberating on this issue and no one came up with any concrete alternatives to the tax plan then.

“The majority of legislature did vote for this, it did pass, the governor did sign it and you failed to give any concrete plans that would be an alternative,” he said, “So, to say you want a conversation about this, that’s what the legislative session was all about.”

To those who say there’s another way to fund the program, Phillips demurred.

“It’s a false hope to people to say ‘oh, don’t worry about this we’ll find the money’” Phillips said, “There’s not a magic money tree sitting behind the capitol where they just print cash.”

One fear for local hospitals is uninsured residents using the Emergency Room in lieu of primary care, adding bad debt to the hospital. Greenhill said if that becomes the case, patients’ premiums will go up regardless of this tax plan.

“I think it’s the same thing that happened on the federal level, they want to repeal but they don’t have a replacement,” Greenhill said of Republican lawmakers funding alternatives.

On the ballot, Measure 101 calls the payments made by hospitals and insurance companies “assessments.” Petitioners appealed the use of the word ‘assessment’ and argued for the use of the word ‘tax.’

In an Oregon Supreme Court decision, the language was upheld.

If the revenue increases are rejected by voters, both Greenhill and Phillips said it will impact the most vulnerable populations.

“We’re seen as a leader in the nation in healthcare transformation and this will only serve to tear down what we’ve worked so hard to build,” Greenhill said, “So, this is going to fall on the backs of the most vulnerable: the children, the elderly and disabled.”

“This effort by a few people really puts all that in jeopardy and you have to ask yourself— why?” Phillips said.

Mass ballots will go out Jan. 4. The referendum will be decided on Jan. 23.

Home rule charter before voters

DOUGLAS COUNTY — Reedsport voters and others will be asked Nov. 7 whether they want to have a county manager run day-to-day operations.

The proposal calls for a home rule charter government for Douglas County, starting 60 days after the election.

"Five non-partisan, part-time commissioners will be elected each for a four-year term, by district, to govern (the) county as the policy board," according to the ballot document. Additionally, county personnel will hire a county manager to handle the day-to-day business operations of the county.

"Commissioners will be compensated $250 per meeting not to exceed $500 per month with actual and necessary expenses reimbursed when incurred on county business, but not entitled to receive benefits or participate in county retirement systems," according to the document.

Additionally, commissioners will be allowed to serve eight consecutive years, after which they can't be eligible for election or appointment in any district until the "passage of one election cycle following the person's last term in office."

The sheriff will have responsibility for enforcing state and county ordinances "except as determined otherwise by the board. The minimum requirements to serve as sheriff are changed."

Also, the sheriff, treasurer, clerk, assessor and surveyor will continue as elected positions.

In an earlier interview with the Umpqua Post, a chief petitioner, Suzanne Hall, said "we are trying to accomplish professional business management of Douglas County" through hiring a county administrator. As is the case now, voters would still elect their commissioners and she said "it's up to them as to whether they are willing to make a change or whether they are willing to go with what they have."

Hall is a retired county information technology customer support manager.

Fellow co-petitioner Doug Hockett and Hall added this in a guest column.

"The proposed home rule charter is a well thought out document. It wasn't crafted overnight and its core provisions are working in other counties," they wrote. "It has been operationally and legally tested. We cannot say it's the perfect document or that everyone will agree with every provision. There will be sticking points and voters will have to decide for themselves if a conflict with a provision is too troubling to warrant their vote."

"This home rule charter is about professional management and administration of the county's business operations by an experienced public administrator," they added.

Commissioner Gary Leif said he's stayed out of the conversation "because people will think I'm trying to save my job, but it has nothing to do with that."

"I believe there are so many issues — mostly loss of transparency and (that the) county manager would be able to manage behind closed doors," he said.

"I don't think that is good," Leif wrote in an email. "We do everything in public."

"The other concern is that volunteer commissioners will not do anything like what paid commissioners are doing," Leif added. "I work about 12 hours per day and on the weekends I am available to anyone in the county. Volunteers will not be as active, nor would they represent anyone outside their area. I believe this is critical so people can access me anywhere in the county."

Supporters of the home rule charter have donated hundreds into the campaign, including some from Lexington, Maine, and Kent, Wash., according to filing statements with the Oregon Secretary of State's Office. Volunteers spent $4,500 with Roseburg station BCI for advertising. Other donations came in, including $776 from Dianne Phillips of Azalea, Ore., $250 from Thomas Fullbright of Roseburg and $1,818 from John Hunter of Tenmile, Ore.

Deborah Royal of the Secretary of State's Office could not be reached by deadline for comment on other questions.

Diana Larson of Myrtle Creek, Ore., is listed as the treasurer of the pro-home rule group, according to the political action committee "statement of organization" listing at the Secretary of State's Office.

Carol Russell of Bandon serves as treasurer of the Protect Douglas County Public Safety and Jobs PAC. She and others support the current form of government and are opposed to home rule. A variety of contributions came in, including $6,000 from Lone Rock Timber Management Co. of Roseburg, another $6,000 from the Swanson Group company also of Roseburg and $5,000 from Redmond, Ore., dentist Mike Shirtcliff.

Commissioner Tim Freeman expressed his concerns with the proposal to change the governmental form.

"I have stated I'm opposed to this charter for many reasons," Freeman said. "The first and biggest reason is if passed it will create a 'firewall' between the citizens of Douglas County and their government. Today each citizen votes for each commissioner. That means every citizen has three out of three commissioners working for them. One hundred percent. The new idea is that there are going to be five areas. That means each citizen only elects one out of the five — 20 percent."

"If that's not bad enough, today any one of the three commissioners (or all three) can be contacted to help with an issue and the commissioner can work directly with the department head or staff person to solve the problem," Freeman wrote in an email. "The current commissioners work 60-to-70 hours a week doing this and other work."

In Freeman's opinion, that would be far different with home rule.

"In the new system, the best a citizen can hope for is their one commissioner could talk to the manager and the manager may or may not work on the issue. The new commissioners will only work four or five hours a month," Freeman wrote.

Commissioner Freeman added that he's had experience with the "separation of duties this charter will create," noting that he'd served on an eight-person council and on a 90-member legislature.

And so for him?

"The current county system works much better," Freeman emphasized. "Coos County uses Douglas County's current system and 35 of Oregon's 36 counties have some type of full time, paid elected official serving the citizens of their counties."

Nine counties have a home rule charter according to the Oregon Blue Book. Residents in Washington and Lane counties were the first to adopt the home rule system in 1962, followed by Hood River in 1964, then Multnomah in 1967, Benton in 1972, Jackson in 1978, Josephine in 1980, Clatsop in 1988 and Umatilla in 1993.

Douglas County Clerk Patricia Hitt said that each time previous supporters have placed home rule before voters — in 1972, 1974 and 1980 — residents shot the measure down.

"I have no idea what the people will do," Leif said of the upcoming vote. "But I support the majority of the people and will support their decision."

Commissioner Freeman said "I serve at the pleasure of the voters of Douglas County and trust their decision and their vote. I would never guess to how they might vote."