Field trip to Mount St. Helens a casualty of deadlock

by: FILE PHOTO - As part of the federal government shutdown, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was shutdown Tuesday. Fourth grade students at Otto Peterson Elementary School were disappointed earlier this week when it became clear a shutdown of a federal government had stymied their plans to visit Mount St. Helens.

It was a trip, planned for Tuesday, Oct. 1, they had been eagerly anticipating since the start of the year.

The federal government shutdown started Tuesday, the result of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives’ failure to agree to a Senate spending bill that includes full funding for President Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative, commonly called Obamacare.

The House Republicans opposed any budget resolution that did not cut components of the health care law, a condition the Democratic-led Senate rejected.

As a result, “non-essential” branches of federal government, including the United States Department of Agriculture’s administration of the Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument, have been shuttered.

“It’s kind of a pain, and sad. All of the kids are super bummed-out,” said Sherri Leeper, the fourth-grade teacher at Otto Peterson, who has been planning the trip since the school year started.

“We were going to go up to Johnston Ridge Observatory. There’s a ranger station there and we were going to learn about volcanoes and eruptions,” Leeper said. by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Fourth-grade students in Kristy Larsons class at Otto Peterson Elementary worked on geology classwork on the day they were supposed to visit Mount St. Helens.

The students have been studying geology since the start of the school year, specifically related to volcanoes, she added.

Leeper said the field trip would have extended the school day to 4:30 p.m. rather than the usual 2:55 p.m. ending time, and since the government shutdown was announced on the eve of the trip, teachers and parents had to scramble to figure out how to pick students up at an earlier time.

Leeper said she didn’t consider that the shutdown could affect plans to visit Mount St. Helens until Monday and had to call the ranger station to find out if the trip would have to be cancelled.

Otto Peterson students will likely not get to go on the field trip until spring, since schools are required to register in advance with the ranger station for field trips and the station closes in late October for winter, Leeper added.

In other areas, a fatherhood workshop scheduled to occur Oct. 12 at Grace Lutheran Church in Scappoose has been postponed as funding for the workshop originates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Columbia County may end up experiencing the effects of the shutdown at the government level as well.

Henry Heimuller, a St. Helens resident who chairs the Board of County Commissioners, mentioned the shutdown during a Wednesday, Oct. 2, meeting. He said his wife Pam, who works in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has been furloughed to part-time status due to limited funds.

Beyond Heimuller’s immediate family, he added, the Columbia County Rider transit system has been notified it may not receive federal funding during the shutdown, and public and mental health organizations could also see funding stopped or delayed.

Heimuller said that, although the county has not felt the pinch from the shutdown yet, it could take its toll if it lasts for a long time.

“It can cause heartache for the local agencies,” Heimuller said, adding, “A lot of the things we do here at the local level are affected directly by federal sources.”

According to a 2012 quarterly census of employment and wages, there were 69 federal government jobs in Columbia County with a total annual payroll of $3.2 million and average wages of $46,411. Shawna Sykes, workforce analyst at the Oregon Employment Department said it is unclear which of those jobs would be affected by the shutdown.

“Unfortunately, because of the shutdown, I don’t have access to the Census data which may provide additional information about those who live in Columbia County and work for the federal government outside the county,” Sykes noted in an email.

For Leeper’s fourth grade students, she said she moved forward with the lesson plan she had outlined for Wednesday in order to fill the gap made by the cancelled field trip.

She said she is considering an assignment to have her students write letters to Congress about how the shutdown affected them.

“They were so excited” for the field trip, she added.

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