Students sit down with state senators

Camas youth question political leaders on everything from education to environment

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Washington State senators Ann Rivers (left), Lynda Wilson (second from left) and Annette Cleveland (second from right) sat down with members of the Camas Youth Advisory Council, including the group's president, 16-year-old Camas High junior Emma Cox (center), on Monday, Nov. 27, for a free town hall, to discuss issues important to Clark County families. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Washington State senators Annette Cleveland, Ann Rivers and Lynda Wilson sat down with Camas High students Monday night to discuss issues that affect Clark County families.

Hosted by the Camas Youth Advisory Council (CYAC), the free event brought the senators into a casual setting inside the Camas High theater.

CYAC President Emma Cox, 16, said the group spent nearly two months preparing for the event, and came up with questions that might shed light on “what our local representatives are doing to help benefit the citizens of Clark County.”

Community members filled the theater as the nearly dozen CYAC members, all local high school sophomores, juniors or seniors, asked the senators questions about everything from education funding and possible highway tolls to sexual harassment and environmental regulations.

The two Republican senators, Rivers and Wilson, represent the 18th and 17th districts, which include Camas, Washougal and east Clark County. Cleveland, a Democrat, represents the 49th district, which includes central and west Vancouver.

When one of the students asked the senators to comment on speculation that Georgia-Pacific’s plan to close the majority of its Camas paper mill operations, laying off 300 workers, was somehow connected to Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2014 executive order to reduce carbon pollution in Washington State, the senators shut down the idea that the order had anything to do with the mill’s operations and staff reduction.

“The mill represents the legacy of this community. And real people work there, so what is happening affects these people, but I do not lay blame on the governor for this,” Sen. Rivers said. “That (the governor’s executive order on carbon pollution reduction) is not what’s happening here.”

Rivers asked the students to think about the last time they saw their parents buying reams of computer paper.

“We’re going to a paperless society,” she said. “(The mill closure) is about economics.”

Asked to weigh in on student college debt, the senators diverged a bit. Sen. Cleveland said Washington is the first state to lower tuition at state colleges and that she hoped the state would be a leader for others in the nation.

“Taking on debt is such a disservice to students,” Cleveland said. “I am a proponent of free community college. I believe that is one of the best things we can do for our students and for our economy.”

Rivers said she does not agree that college should be free because she fears students wouldn’t know the true value of courses they didn’t have to pay for.

“It’s important to have some skin in the game,” Rivers said, adding that she worked several summer jobs to put herself through college and never skipped a class because she “knew how much it cost.”

Cleveland said it is challenging for legislators to help lower the cost of college debt, but that there are some things, such as moving to open source textbooks, that state representatives and senators have tried to do to help students reduce the cost of getting a higher education.

Rivers added that families may need to shift their thinking about college. Often, a trade or technical school will help a student more than a four-year college or university, Rivers said.

“There is this idea that you can only be successful if you go to college, but we have a massive shortage of skilled, qualified workers,” Rivers said.

Wilson agreed: “Four-year colleges are really slow in reacting to the jobs we need. We need to look at career and technical colleges and other options that are available. You can get out of a technical college and get a good job — a really good job.”

The entire town hall lasted about 90 minutes, and Camas School Board member Casey O’Dell said he thought the Camas Youth Advisory Council students did a wonderful job with the event.

“They’ve been working on this for a couple months, going to government classes and researching their questions,” O’Dell said after the town hall. “They did a great job.”

Cox, a Camas High junior, said the town hall was the group’s first, but that they may host others in the future.