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Wyden, students engaged at St. Helens town hall

Questions asked by students, community members during meeting with Ron Wyden

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Sen. Ron Wyden, D, addresses questions from students and St. Helens residents during a town hall held at St. Helens High School on Friday, Jan. 29. During the 90 minute meeting Wyden spoke candidly to students about his political views as well as the history of several issues like health care. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden held a town hall meeting at St. Helens High School on Friday, Jan. 29.

The hour-and-a-half meeting drew a modest crowd of about 20 community members, but was packed with nearly 120 high school students who were ready to ask the senator tough questions.

Several classes of mostly junior and senior students took turns asking questions, volleys that were peppered with inquiries from other St. Helens residents. Students from three different citizenship classes and one leadership class at the high school attended the town hall.

Topics of discussion covered a broad range of interests, including the rising costs of college expenses, Oregon high school graduation rates, federal and state minimum wages, tax reform, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the exportation of Oregon-made goods.

Midway through the event, Wyden, a Democrat, asked for five student volunteers to keep in contact with him over the next year. Wyden said he was crowd-sourcing ideas directly from students to develop strategies to combat the low graduation rate in Oregon and wanted help from any student interested. Oregon has the fourth lowest graduation rate in the country at 72 percent for the 2013-14 school year.

Wyden kept the conversation light, at times joking with students. He did not, however, shy away from direct questions about controversial topics such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the rising cost of a college education, issues that sparked back-and-forth discussions between Wyden and the audience.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden engages students and community members at the first town hall the senator has ever held at St. Helens High School.One reoccurring topic was Wyden's opposition to free college education for all students.

“I find that, given the tough budget choices we have to make, it doesn't add up in my view,” Wyden said. “I mean, do we really want to say that the children of millionaires are going to get subsidized college education? Because that's what it would mean.”

Some didn't buy Wyden's reasoning and pressed him on whether protecting against free education for children of millionaires was worth limiting lower-income students access to higher education.

Throughout the town hall, Wyden addressed some questions with remarks of his own political beliefs and took the time to explain the historical context on some topics, such as health care and Medicaid.

Toward the end of the town hall, he joked about students discussing Medicare at a party or on a date. While he said he was joking, Wyden made a point to explain why topics such as Medicare and the cost associated with it should be something that resonates with young adults and teens.

“Seniors have what accounts to a guarantee …. of secure benefits, but we're going to have to find some new ways to secure the cost,” Wyden said. “That's less money for your generation. That's less money for schools. That's less money for recreation and parks, less money for transportation, that's less money for a lot of things.”

Wyden concluded the 90-minute discussion with a mark of praise directed at the students in the room, applauding their well-prepared and thoughtful questions.

“What you've done for the last 90 minutes ought to make us feel very good about where Oregon and this community is headed,” Wyden said. “There has not been a bad question in the house. Everybody has been prepared. Everybody has been respectful of each other's opinion.”

The town hall was the first in a short series of public forums Wyden held over the weekend, including town halls in Yamhill and Benton counties.

Since he was first elected in 1996, Wyden has made it a goal to visit all 36 counties in Oregon each year. This is the first year Wyden has held a town hall at St. Helens High School.