Students, parents and community members voiced their opinions on School District 509-J's recent decision to discontinue the JROTC program July 17, in an emotion-packed conference room at the Madras Performing Arts Center.
The board of directors took input, but postponed making any decision on possibly reversing their decision until their next meeting on July 31.
Following the retirement of Lt. Col. Larry Renfro last month, the candidate to replace him backed out unexpectedly, and administrators said they were unable to find another qualified senior instructor (who must be a commissioned officer). Kyle Yeager, the assistant JROTC instructor is not a commissioned officer, but according to a letter to the editor from Renfro, could run the program for one year while the search for a senior instructor continued. Yeager found out his position had been eliminated by reading about it in the Madras Pioneer newspaper.
Some 43 people testified during the citizen's comments, which took up the majority of the meeting.
The meeting was Ken Parshall's first day on the job as the new superintendent, and he addressed the crowd, saying, "There should have been communication between the (Madras High School) principals and Mr. Yeager as to the recommendation to discontinue the program. In the future, we will do our best to communicate between two parties."
Many parents gave emotional stories of how joining the JROTC program had pulled their children out of bad situations.
Janis Dinkel read a letter on behalf of her daughter, which said, "I was on a road leading to jail or prison. I dropped out of school and didn't care if I lived or died."
Returning to school, she was put into JROTC and said Renfro kept calling her into his office and asking about her hopes and dreams. Finally, she began joining in on activities and with the support and role model of a "caring adult," earned good grades, became battalion commander, and went on to graduate from Oregon State University.
Retired JROTC instructor Cliff Brumels said he was willing to come to MHS to volunteer his time to help with the program if a senior instructor can be found.
Ray Pokorny said the $180,000 the district spends for the JROTC (matched by the Army) was a good investment, considering all the benefits to students.
Lori Young said her son was in the JROTC color guard and drill team and part of every community activity. "It gave him what sports give athletes," she said. Pointing to a gap losing JROTC will leave in the community, she asked, "Why were the other instructor candidates not considered? How many seniors will miss out on scholarships? Who will raise our flag at games, clean the stadium, place flags at the cemetery and lead our parades? Who does as much in the community as JROTC does?"
JROTC alumni Sean Leriche said in high school he played three sports and was the student body president, but, "The only thing influencing me today is my involvement in JROTC." The program helped him to keep his grades up to win a JROTC scholarship that allows him to currently attend Gonzaga University.
"It was a big part of my life and I put in 200 hours of community service. But what it really does is give you discipline, which is what every young person needs," he said.
Tristen Bateman said he is now in the OSU Navy ROTC program. "JROTC is the only place some students feel accepted and loved. For some, it's the only thing that keeps them at school," he said.
Parent Steve Leriche noted that JROTC is unique from other classes. "It has a chain of command. (Renfro) gives a mission to the battalion commander and the kids work out the mission. They are much more trustworthy than other students. If you have one instructor, it can be done and I don't know why that one person can't be Kyle Yeager."
"We are a patriotic community. The administrators, who said we don't need the program don't live in Jefferson County," he said, referring to MHS Principal Mark Neffendorf and Vice Principal H.D. Weddel, who both live in Bend. "If you had a math teacher withdraw, would you drop the math department?" Leriche asked the board.
Madras City Councilor Gary Walker said the city has helped JROTC as an investment in the community, with funds for trips to Hawaii and D-Day ceremonies in Normandy, France.
"It's the character of the students that come out of the program. You don't see kids getting that anywhere else," Walker said.
Deb Turner, with the regional committee that gives JROTC scholarships, noted, "The value of the program cannot be measured in dollars. It offers students the tools of determination, team building, working through problems, volunteerism, and leads to scholarships, which lead to college and employment."
She urged the board to "Research other applicants and we will help you."
Kira Povis, who would have been next year's battalion commander, said she was not outgoing, and was rude and sarcastic before joining JROTC. When she had family problems, Renfro pushed her to talk to her teachers about it and get her grades up. "The program confirmed to me what career I wanted – to be a military doctor. If Sgt. Yeager leaves, people say there will be no hope for a program, but others can help find an instructor," she said.
Student Anabela Juarez said, "JROTC creates a family. The colonel is like a grandpa or uncle to me. I look forward to going to class because I could talk to anyone like they were family. Seeing my family torn apart would be devastating."
In a tearful presentation, Jasmine Lopez said she was bitterly disappointed in the board's decision. "You guys made a horrible mistake. I was going to go to Hawaii and we worked hard for that money. It's just a trip to you guys, but I worked so hard. I'm so mad you guys are taking this away from us."
Melody McDaniel said JROTC is the only group where a student's cultural and social background doesn't matter. "We all had each other's back. It's all about giving students the chance to see what they can do, and experience leadership roles. It meets students where they are and challenges them to be better," she said.
County Commissioner Mae Huston said when she heard the program was discontinued, "I was so shocked. Why would you recommend this without doing the proper groundwork and research? Please go back and do the research."
Retired JROTC instructor Renfro asked the board, "Who the hell gave you this information, and why didn't anybody come and talk to me? You really messed over Kyle Yeager and now he doesn't trust you." He said the board had no idea of how to close up a JROTC program, which has thousands of dollar's worth of equipment. His comments got a standing ovation.
JROTC alumni Jonathan Courtney said, "I was a young native kid, bringing alcohol to the classroom, who didn't know what I was going to do. Then I joined JROTC with Col. (Mack) Gardner and he saw something in me."
He said Gardner encouraged him to go to college and he did, and was an officer in the Army for nine years. Now he works at BestCare in Madras with the youth coalition. "JROTC is an evidence-based program that gives kids a safe alternative," he said.
Parent Candy DeSouza said her son wouldn't have made it through high school without JROTC. "He didn't fit in, but Col. Renfro and Sgt. Yeager took him under their wings and supported him in everything he did. My daughter was suicidal. She had joined JROTC and was in treatment, and what got her through was wanting to go to spring training, and they supported her. These men take the time to get to know these kids," she said.
Onassis Adame, a volunteer firefighter and emergency responder, said the program makes his job easier because of the skills students are taught. He told a story of responding to a young drowning victim. When he arrived, a lady had been giving chest compressions on a boy for 20 minutes. "I asked her where she learned that and she said 'Sgt. Yeager' and that boy is alive today," he said.
Former JROTC instructor Gardner said, "The board stumbled into this decision and the community reacted quickly. I congratulate the people here for exercising your civic responsibility and speaking your mind, and I hope the board will listen to you."
Debbie Stinson gave a businessperson's view of the program. She said she caught a boy she knew was in JROTC shoplifting at her store. "I called Col. Renfro and he worked with the student and me. It turned out the boy shoplifted school supplies because he couldn't afford them. That boy (now grown) is now a manager at a local establishment."
Ellen Courtney said, "There are so many children who want to belong somewhere. If you don't provide a positive opportunity, they will find negative activities."
An emotional Fay Yeager, wife of Sgt. Yeager, said her husband told her not to speak, but she had to. "You betrayed this man and betrayed me, too. Where is your professionalism?" she asked.
At the end of testimony, Parshall thanked everyone for their comments. "The board made it clear to me that they value the JROTC program a lot. The biggest challenge is we still don't have an instructor."
He said they would not act on the issue that night; their intent was just to take input and absorb it. "Give us some time to understand the challenge we face," Parshall said.
New board Chairman Laurie Danzuka said, "I have a lot of respect for the veterans in this room. We will take what's come to us tonight under advisement."
Board member Courtney Snead noted the importance of people participating with their opinions in a democracy. "I'm still learning how (the board) works and I'm not infallible," she said.
Board member Tom Norton said, "I'm sure you're all wanting more from us than thanks. We completely dropped the ball on the communication part of it and I apologize to Kyle (Yeager) for this. I'm embarrassed about it and saying I'm sorry feels hollow."
When those in the audience asked when JROTC would be on the agenda, Dazuka told them "in the future." However, board member Stan Sullivan made a motion to place the topic on the next meeting's agenda, which is July 31, and the motion passed.