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Bench dedicated to 13-year-old girl who died last May

Oyuky_RodriguezOyuky Rodriguez made a big impression on people during her short life.

When she accidentally choked to death May 7, 2009, the 13-year-old Cottonwood Middle School student left behind grieving parents, relatives and many friends.

Gone, but not forgotten, CMS students inspired by Rodriguez’s effort to overcome disabilities that prevented her from talking decided to erect a monument in her memory.

Exactly one year after her death, more than 40 students, teachers, friends and relatives dedicated a bench to her in front of the CMS administrative office Friday, May 7.

A special needs student from the time she entered the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District as a second-grader, Rodriguez’s teachers helped her progress through the grades. She made many friends along the way, according to her mother, Meily Contreras.

“She was very popular,” Contreras said. “She was very well loved. Her attitude, her charisma, it was just her. She liked people.”

Rodriguez was part of the CMS inclusion program, so she was attending classes with typical able-bodied peers, CMS Principal Denise Kennedy said.

“We have fond memories of Oyuky and her hats,” Kennedy told the gathering. “She loved hats. She would wear them and share them by placing her hats on others’ heads.”

Rodriguez loved her fellow students and loved any attention she got from them, Kennedy said.

Rodriguez also enjoyed music and dancing. She frequently directed one of her CMS teachers to turn the radio on in the classroom so she could dance with him. Kennedy said.

“She would come in the morning with that beautiful smile and look at me, her head tilted, until I acknowledged her,” she said. “She was a beautiful young lady and is greatly missed.”

Contreras said she still suffers from the loss of her daughter.

Bench_dedication“It was very hard,” Contreras said. “It gets harder and harder.”

The memorial bench came as a surprise and a comfort she said.

“I really appreciate what everybody did for her, the teachers, the principal, the [CMS] Student Council, by keeping her in their hearts and minds even a year after she died,” Contreras said.

“Oyuky, our special angel, will shine in the sky like a wishing star; she will watch and protect her family and friends. Oyuky will live in our minds and hearts forever,” she told the gathering.

To help the Rodriguez family defray the $10,000 expense of their daughter’s funeral, people may contribute to the Oyuky Rodriguez Memorial Fund at Chase Bank, COCSD communications director Keith Steele said.

More than 120 concerned parents gathered at Oak Creek School in Cornville on Thursday, April 22, to object to its possible closure for the 2010-11 school year.

Oak_Creek_School_closing_1The hastily called meeting of the Oak Creek School Parent Teacher Organization came after the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School district announced April 20 the closure was possible to help make up a potential $2 million budget shortfall.

Closing the school would eliminate the jobs of 40 people and save the district roughly $480,000, COCSD Board member Jason Finger told the gathering.

Many who attended the PTO meeting said they would fight the closure.

“We like our small community school,” Rod Taylor said. “We would probably not have our kids go to this district if they close this school.”

“We moved here because of the tight-knit group of people who live in this small community,” Taylor’s wife, Shawna, said. “It’s not fair.”

Oak_Creek_School_closing_2Finger attended the meeting with COCSD Board member Eric Wyles. Wyles said shutting Oak Creek School would only take place if there was no other way to close the budget gap.

“We, as a board, understand the ramifications of closing a campus, even temporarily. Nobody wants to do that, absolutely nobody,” Wyles said.

The board already voted April 20 to lay off 24 employees, including 15 teachers, and to provide kindergarten in half-day sessions instead of full days as currently offered. These and other cuts will close a $1.1 million budget shortfall predicted for the 2010-11 school year.

The deficit is anticipated as a consequence of declining enrollment and the state Legislature’s decision to reduce funding for kindergarten, according to COCSD Superintendent Barbara U’Ren.

If a 1 cent sales tax increase, as proposed in a ballot initiative titled Proposition 100, fails Tuesday, May 18, more drastic cuts, including the school closing, are possible, Wyles told the parents.

Oak_Creek_School_closing_3Wyles urged residents to call 10 of their friends to get out the vote in favor of the tax increase.

Finger said the board identified several possible cuts in the event Proposition 100 fails, none of which alone can solve the district’s budget problem.

Reducing the school week to four days would save between $75,000 and $125,000, Finger said.

Increasing class sizes by cutting four more teacher positions would save the district $300,000, he said.

Finger said other possible cuts include:

  • Eliminating all music to save $133,000, physical education to save $192,000 and computer classes to save $137,000. Total savings would be $462,000.
  • Reducing pay for teachers and staff by 1 percent to save $103,000.
  • Requiring all teachers and staff to take one day off without pay to save $58,000.

Police find allegedly suicidal man later at local restaurant

A 22-year-old Iraq War veteran who talked of suicide was located unharmed at a local fast food restaurant after more than 10 Cottonwood Police Department officers and four members of the Verde Valley Special Weapons and Tactics team surrounded the trailer home where he was believed to reside.

SWAT_in_Old_Town_CottonwoodPolice were called to the 800 block of N. Sixth Street shortly after 3 p.m. on Friday, April 16, after the girlfriend of the unidentified man told officers the man threatened suicide and said he wanted to die, according to the CPD.

The girlfriend told police the man frequently carried a .45-caliber pistol and owned body armor, Sgt. Gary Eisenga said at the scene.

When the man did not answer telephone calls or come to the door of the home, police, aided by members of Citizens on Patrol, blocked access to Sixth from Main streets.

Uniformed in full military gear, including a bullet-proof vest, a SWAT member patrolled the neighborhood carrying an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol at his hip. Several SWAT members were seen carrying automatic rifles.

The home, located in a wooded Old Town neighborhood where historic houses constructed of river rock are situated side by side with trailer homes, was surrounded by police shortly before 4 p.m.

Moments later, five houses near the residence were evacuated. Neighbors appeared concerned as they filed out of their homes and gathered outside a yellow tape barrier. They joined in small groups and spoke in hushed voices about the man some said was normally friendly and outgoing.

One man was shirtless, his wife in sleepwear, after being roused from bed following an overnight shift at work. All watched and waited as police set up tables in front of the command center and unfurled wire from a bright red spool for a telephone connection.

Shortly after 4:30 p.m, carrying tall, metal shields and walking behind the SWAT van, SWAT members, weapons at the ready, slowly approached the front of the home to place the telephone inside.

SWAT remained in place as negotiators attempted again to contact the man using the telephone line that stretched back to the mobile command center. Still, the man did not answer.

Shortly before 5 p.m., the girlfriend, who was seated on a chair in the street in front of the mobile command center, received a telephone call from the man.

She spoke briefly, then handed the telephone to Sgt. Darren Harper, who was apparently acting as a negotiator at the scene. The man told Harper he was not home, but at a local fast food restaurant having a hamburger.

CPD dispatched a police officer and SWAT team member to the restaurant to verify the man was where he said he was, Eisenga said.

After speaking to police, the man gave permission for CPD to enter his home, where officers located a handgun, magazines, ammunition and body armor.

The man was checked into Verde Valley Medical Center for evaluation. There were no injuries reported.

Eisenga said the response by CPD was customary when an armed suspect is reported, depending on the circumstances. The fact the man was an Iraq War veteran was not the reason fully armed SWAT members were dispatched to the scene, he said.

“It’s always better to be safe,” Eisenga said.

When disaster strikes in Cottonwood, only one engine is ready to respond.
If two emergency calls come in, the captain has to decide which one to respond to or call for help.

All of this will soon change when the Cottonwood Fire Department receives a $1.3 million grant from the United States Department of Homeland Security to double its firefighting staff.

“The primary and the only justifiable reason right now for that kind of investment are the demands of our community have outgrown our ability to serve it,” CFD Fire Chief Mike Casson said.

Cottonwood City Council committed $1.3 million for the first four years of the grant cycle and $891,012 for the fifth year, which is part of the grant stipulations.

In 2008, CFD received 2,478 calls for service and sometimes they came in tandem.

“We’ve had as many as six calls happen in 20 minutes in this town,” Casson said.

Sometimes CFD’s single crew juggles multiple calls but other times it’s forced to call for help.

“You’re just playing Lady Luck,” Casson said.

If the second call is in the heart of the city, Casson said CFD staffs a second reserve engine with its two fire prevention staff members, who are certified firefighters.

If the second call is in the northern part of the city, Clarkdale Fire District is called to assist. If the call is in the southern section, Verde Valley Fire District is dispatched.

The Federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant will give CFD a second, fully-staffed engine adding 12 firefighters to the existing 12.

The last time CFD hired firefighters was in fiscal year 2005-06 when two came on the crew, according to department records. Prior to 2002, CFD had only six firefighters using two-man crews rather than four-man crews.
Small crews also mean CFD relies on volunteers to help during major events. CFD currently has a base of approximately 15 volunteers.

In 2004, Casson said call volume reached 2,000 calls per year, and CFD knew a second engine company would be needed.

The second crew will decrease response times and allow for department training and projects.

“Our goal is to provide an engine company on the scene of an incident in five minutes or less,” Casson said. CFD strives to meet its goal 90 percent of the time.

With the single crew scurrying to calls, firefighters have little time for training.

“Right now it’s difficult,” Casson said. Every time training begins, a call goes out and the training ends.

Additional firefighters on the clock also means CFD can build map books of the community to use during emergencies, check fire hydrants and participate in community events.

The new firefighters will be put on shift within 90 days of the federal government formally notifying the city it is a grant recipient. Casson said he doesn’t know when that will be.

Currently, CFD is working to refine its hiring criteria with the help of the city’s human resource department.

CFD will advertise the job statewide, Casson said, and certainly give consideration to city employees and local qualified applicants.

To be eligible for one of the 12 positions, an applicant must have a high school diploma or GED, and have Arizona State Firefigher II and Arizona EMT certification, or an equivalent.

According to Casson, CFD hopes to get a jump-start on the hiring process so when the order comes down from the federal government, it will be ready.

The city will receive $468,180 from the grant the first year and must contribute $211,000. The second year, the grant covers $416,100 and the city covers $311,000. The third year, $260,040 comes from the grant and $518,196 from the city. During the fourth year, the grant pays $156,240 and the city pays $676,476. By the fifth year, the city takes on the entire responsibility of funding the positions at $891,012.

The city of Cottonwood is taking a cautious approach with its hopes to annex eight square miles of Forest Service land on its northern border, now that a potential lack of taxable land in the area may have brought the city’s plans to a halt.

The land was recently the subject of a now defunct agreement between Cottonwood and the town of Clarkdale that had been drawn up in hopes of preserving the land as open space.

As Cottonwood proceeded with efforts to move forward with annexation, Clarkdale canceled the agreement, which was predicated on the idea no one would try to annex the land.

The Clarkdale Town Council also thinks that the agreement might be unnecessary in any case. Under its interpretation of state annexation law, Clarkdale feels Cottonwood’s annexation attempt will not succeed.

According to advice from legal counsel and their own past experiences, Clarkdale leaders believe there is no landowner in the proposed annexation area that can legally sign the land over to Cottonwood.

This theory is based on a reading of state law that requires that landowners who pay the majority of property taxes in a given area agree to any annexation. Previously, Cottonwood was counting on a signature from Qwest Communications, which had filed documents with the Arizona Department of Revenue showing that they were the only landowners in the proposed area besides the U.S. Forest Service.

The company has since rescinded that claim, according to Clarkdale Town Manager Gayle Mabery, stating that the paperwork was a mistake and the company actually owns no land in the area.

If that’s the case, it leaves only the Forest Service as a landowner; Clarkdale believes the Forest Service can’t agree to an annexation because its land isn’t taxable and therefore doesn’t meet the letter of the law.

That’s also the opinion of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, an organization that works in the interest of the state’s municipalities; the Arizona attorney general’s office has not weighed in with an opinion.

These revelations have left Cottonwood unsure of where it stands with the annexation effort, said Cottonwood Town Manager Doug Bartosh; town leaders were counting on a signature from Qwest, although there could be some gray area about what role the Forest Service could play in any annexation attempt.

“We’re just not really sure at this point,” Bartosh said. “We’re trying to do some research to find exactly what the law does allow.”

Bartosh said once the town’s lawyers finish looking into the matter, the town should have more solid information about which direction to go from
here.

The youngest scientists in Cottonwood have a lot on their minds.

For example:

Which deflates faster, a balloon filled with helium or a balloon filled with air?
Which apple turns brown faster when exposed to the open air, Granny Smith or Red Delicious?
Which snack foods do people prefer, brand names or generic?

“It’s all science,” Kelli Rhoda, Cottonwood Elementary School teacher and Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District science committee member, said. “Everything is science.”

Rhoda made the observation as she and other members of the committee set up dozens of tables with three-panel cardboard displays created by fifth- and seventh-grade students who advanced from science fair competitions at each of their schools to the district level.

Each display proposed a hypothesis, explained how it was tested and declared whether it was correct. Colorful, creative and frequently interesting, scores of science projects from chemistry to consumer science filled the gym at Clemenceau School.

Judging was under way Tuesday, Feb. 23. Students competed for first, second, third and fourth place at each grade level in each category of science, Rhoda said.

In addition, overall winners from the fifth-grade class and the seventh-grade class are also determined. The fifth-grade winner receives the Dylan Award, named for a young student at Oak Creek School who loved science but died at a very young age.
As a 5-year-old, the boy, whose last name remains anonymous, conceived an experiment to test whether seeds could grow on several different media, from popcorn to Play-Doh.

Recalling the youngster’s promise brought tears to the eyes of Denise Stearley, the Oak Creek School nurse who cared for Dylan before he died. Stearley, who also serves on the district’s science committee, was helping set up displays.
“His original ideas in science won awards,” Stearley said.

“Emory University invited him to show off what he did.”

Last year’s Dylan Award winner tested water samples from several different fast food restaurants, Rhoda said. All proved to contain bacteria, but the water from one restaurant in particular grew such an impressive mass of green bacteria, the judges had to take notice, she said.

Bacteria-laden petri dishes, rotted apples and the like are not allowed at the fair, COCSD Science Manager Keith Steele said, but that rarely dampens the spirits of the competitors.

“These teachers have really just done an outstanding job inspiring these kids to take an idea and run with it,” Steele said. “They guide, but don’t walk them through the projects.”

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Joe, a cutting horse injured decades ago, passed his 30th birthday this year under the care of ranchers at Rainbow Acres, an assisted living center for developmentally disabled adults south of Cottonwood.

Unable to carry a rider, Joe might have been put down by his owners years ago, but instead, they preserved his life out of loyalty and respect for his years of service. How could they have foreseen their decision would not only save the life of a faithful horse, but also improve the quality of life for dozens of strangers?

Donated to Rainbow Acres about four years ago, Joe now lives at the ranch, where developmentally disabled residents, known as ranchers, feed, water, brush and curry him, just part of the curriculum for those enrolled in the Total Equine Training program.

The program exists to “empower lives through the heart of the horse,” Amy Elmore, program coordinator, said.

By caring for horses, ranchers learn about responsibility, companionship and much more, Elmore said.

“My hope is the program can be one of those transformative experiences for the ranchers where they discover some meaningful connection with the animals,” said Gary Wagner, Rainbow Acres president and CEO. “It gives them an outlet for caring, for caring for someone greater than themselves.”

In caring for the horses, ranchers learn anatomy, physiology, nutrition, grooming, tack and harness use, exercise, and stable maintenance, Elmore said.

Eventually, Elmore hopes the program will be able to certify ranchers to work with horses in the private sector.

“For me, my biggest driving motivation is for people to understand this population can do anything anyone else can,” Elmore said. “It may take a little bit longer, but they can do it.”

Because Rainbow Acre’s existing stable exposes ranchers and horses to the elements, excessive heat and other inclement weather interferes with the number of days the program operates. A new stable is needed to expand the program, Meryl Houser, a Rainbow Acres spokeswoman, said.

Plans for the new 2,400 square foot stable include a classroom, feed and supply store room, riding and exercise area, tack and equipment room, and multiple stalls, among other features.

The first phase of building is expected to cost $40,000 for construction materials. Friends of Rainbow Acres will provide the labor to build the structure, Houser said.

On Monday, April 26, Blazin’ M Ranch hosts a chuck wagon supper and Wild West Stage Show to raise money to build the new stable. Blazin’ M will underwrite the entire cost of the event so 100 percent of the proceeds go to the equestrian program, Houser said.

A pie auction and door prize drawing will take place offering a chance to win one of five prizes, including $1,000 in cash.

For more information, call 567-5231.

Greg Ruland can be reached at 634-8551 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Like swallows to San Juan Capistrano, hundreds of nature enthusiasts are expected to flock to Dead Horse Ranch State Park once again for the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival, now in its 10th year.

The festival opens Earth Day, Thursday, April 22, with more than 20 classes, tours and workshops scheduled, including a free welcoming reception at 4 p.m. at Dead Horse Ranch State Park on Thursday.

“My goal, in addition to providing a great recreational opportunity, is to preserve these natural habitats,” Barbie Hart, festival founder and coordinator, said. “The only way to get people to do that is to get them to care and this a way we can do that.”

JNL-VV-birding-fest-4-14The keynote presentation takes place at 6:30 p.m., Friday, April, 23, at Old Town Cottonwood Civic Center with Bill Thompson III, a bird watcher with 30 years experience who shares humorous anecdotes about the art and science of his favorite pastime.

Thompson, editor of the Bird Watcher’s Digest, has authored many books about birds and nature, most recently, “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.”

“We are proud to have him here to help celebrate our 10th anniversary,” Hart said.

More than 300 people are expected to attend the free Family Nature Fair starting at 10 a.m., Saturday, April 24. The fair features games for children, exhibits, demonstrations and an appearance by the Bird Man, who will show off his live birds, Hart said.

Birders have been signing up since February to take part in more than 80 different programs scheduled for the four-day event. The festival’s last program, a Lunch and Learn on Bird Care, starts at 11:30 a.m. and concludes at 1 p.m., Sunday, April 25.

“We encourage preregistration,” Hart said. “Of course, you can just show up, but then you’ll just have to take what’s left.”

Most walks and field trips start at the Aviary, a refreshment station located across the sidewalk from the registration tent at Dead Horse Ranch State Park.

Events are scheduled to take place across the Verde Valley and greater Sedona, with trips to Red Tank Draw and Beaver Creek, Bubbling Ponds in Page Springs, Tavasci Marsh near Clarkdale, Stoneman Lake on the Mogollon Rim and Agua Fria National Monument.

While birding is a primary focus for many visitors, others will enjoy sightseeing trips and workshops to learn about the area’s geology and plant life, butterflies, bears and even flying dinosaurs.

Space is limited and some events may already be sold out. An up-to-date schedule of events can be viewed at www.birdyverde.org.

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