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TOP STORIES: Zucchini, a retiring superintendent and a neighborhood transformed

For months, our small team at Salem Reporter has joked about the slow news weeks we used to encounter.

This year has been a nearly non-stop deluge of local news on every front: the city of Salem’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to impose a payroll tax, a new superintendent for the Salem-Keizer School District, teacher union negotiations and a major state push to expand homeless shelter beds at a time when some federal money is drying up.

On a personal note, I started 2023 welcoming my first child to our family (which is why you won’t see any stories below from February or March). My daughter is just learning how to walk, but she’s already attended several school board meetings, clapped along to music at a union rally and tabled at Fun Fridays at Northgate Park with the rest of the Salem Reporter newsroom.

Seeing Salem anew through her eyes has made many of the civic issues I write about more personal and relevant to my day-to-day life (poorly maintained sidewalks hit differently when you’re navigating them with a stroller).

Here are my favorite stories from 2023. I’m excited to see where my reporting takes us in the next year.

Salem city leaders this month have announced a renewed focus on gun violence, particularly shootings tied to gangs. But a group of northeast Salem moms have been working on the issue for years, coming together regularly to plan events, build connections and reclaim Northgate Park as a space for families to hang out.

The Hallman Neighborhood Family Council is one example of a community-driven solution to neighborhood problems, showing how people can make change in their own backyards with a little support.

I have fond memories from high school of participating in a citizen science program through the Seattle Aquarium, heading to the city’s beaches to record what marine life we could find in tide pools. We never observed anything as exciting as a bald eagle chick, however. It was exciting to learn Salem’s program is so well-staffed, and hear some of the delight from the volunteer who first spotted the baby eagle.

When temperatures soar in Salem, we tend to think first of the impact on people working and living outdoors. Schools aren’t generally somewhere I think to check for workplace safety, but I started getting reports coming in of classrooms with temperatures in the 80s across the Salem-Keizer School District.

A bit of research showed me this is, no surprise, a growing issue in schools across the U.S. as many aging facilities contend with a warming climate that’s making spring and fall increasingly intolerable in buildings without air conditioning.

This story started with a frustrated mom in Keizer reaching out after learning the state’s welfare office had made an error impacting thousands of families, telling them they’d be receiving a clothing allowance that wasn’t coming.

For me, this story was a reminder of something journalists, myself included, don’t do often enough. We write about government programs regularly, but often present high-level information about new developments or funding, quoting only bureaucrats with state agencies. We rarely speak to the people these programs are intended to serve, and when we do, we don’t go back to state officials with the questions the clients have.

Every year, I mark the end of the school year by profiling a group of graduating seniors in Salem. My goal is to get at least one student from each high school and show a cross-section of the senior class: musicians, athletes, model citizens and kids who beat incredible odds to graduate.

It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite among the students I talk to, but I loved my conversation with Trae Green, an actor from South Salem High School who was heading to Howard University to continue his studies. We spoke about performance and how art can be both deeply personal and universal.

My strongest memories of Christy Perry are from two days before Christmas in 2020, when the Oregon Department of Education inexplicably decided the best way to give students, parents and educators a winter break was to announce a massive shift in the state’s Covid guidelines for schools.

I called Perry to figure out the million dollar question: how soon would Salem kids be back in classrooms? She didn’t yet know – she’d been as blindsided by the new guidelines as I was, though trying to update me via text on what was coming as she heard rumors. Before we talked through reopening plans, we took a minute to air our frustrations to each other about the state’s always bad timing with Covid announcements. She wanted to make sure I would get some time off covering the news to see my family over the holiday, which I assured her I would.

It was typical for a superintendent who always kept a deep focus on human connection in her work, even in times of stress and turmoil. In writing this profile, I wanted to capture a full portrait of her as a leader without glossing over the difficult moments of her superintendency or the criticisms some raised of her time in office. She was generous with her time, inviting me to her retirement party so I could talk to colleagues from her years in Dallas and pepper her second-grade teacher with questions.

Watching a bunch of retirees get hyper-competitive and trash talk each other about racing produce is a truly delightful experience.

After editing several stories about new homeless shelters opening or expanding capacity, I figured it was time to step back and see where Salem was. My gut told me the city was seeing a significant boom in shelter capacity – and despite naysayers on Facebook, the number of people camping outdoors in and around downtown and around major intersections seemed much diminished from peaks during the pandemic.

I paired up with our summer intern, Natalie Sharp, who surveyed every shelter provider in Salem to get updated counts and details on their waitlists. Using the data she gathered, I made a few calls, crunched some numbers and put together a snapshot for where Salem stands in a key moment in the fight against homelessness.

I never knew Ron Eachus beyond seeing him introduce a few Salem City Club programs, but I felt I had by the time I finished reporting this obituary. I love learning about how his years of work as a utility commissioner helped shape Oregon’s energy policy in tangible ways. There’s probably a straight line between Eachus’ push to get power companies to focus on energy conservation and my habit of starting laundry loads after 9 p.m., when PGE slashes the amount it charges me to run appliances.

More fun was hearing some friends tell stories from Eachus’ days as a “campus radical,” as contemporaneous newspaper articles described him. He served as University of Oregon president a few years after my great uncle, Henry Drummonds, and delving into that period of his life gave me a better picture of what life on campus would have been like for both men during a tumultuous period.

This story was one of several that started in my neighborhood Buy Nothing group after I saw a post about a neighbor offering sword combat classes and reached out.

It sounds silly in retrospect, but I’d never thought of sword fighting as a physical discipline. In my mind, it had more in common with nerdy hobbies like Dungeons and Dragons than with other combat arts like wrestling or aikido. Watching one class quickly showed me that wielding a long sword was a full-body experience, and quite a lot of fun.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.