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Washington
AP
Trump puts off Syria strike decision, will talk to allies

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday put off a final decision on possible military strikes against Syria after tweeting earlier that they could happen "very soon or not so soon at all." The White House said he would consult further with allies.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned such an attack carried the risk of spinning out of control, suggesting caution ahead of a decision on how to respond to an attack against civilians last weekend that U.S. officials are increasingly certain involved the use of banned chemical weapons. British officials said up to 75 people were killed.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a brief statement after Trump met with Mattis and other members of his National Security Council: "No final decision has been made. We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies."

Sanders said Trump would speak later with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

The Security Council scheduled another emergency meeting for this morning at Russia's request.

Although Mattis noted that military action carried risks, he also emphasized that Syrian use of chemical weapons should not be tolerated. And he insisted it remains U.S. policy not to be involved directly in Syria's civil war.

"Our strategy remains the same as a year ago," he said. "It is to drive this to a U.N.-brokered peace but, at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it," referring to the Islamic State extremist group.

Mattis' remarks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing followed a series of Trump tweets this week that initially indicated he was committed to bombing Syria but later suggested he was awaiting further advice and assessment. Trump wrote in a Thursday morning tweet that an attack could happen "very soon or not so soon at all."

Later Thursday he was noncommittal. "We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at the whole situation," he told reporters.

Mattis said options would be discussed with Trump at a meeting of his National Security Council on Thursday afternoon. That meant airstrikes, possibly in tandem with France and other allies that have expressed outrage at the alleged Syrian chemical attack, could be launched within hours of a presidential decision.

Meanwhile, a team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was on its way to Syria on Thursday to begin an investigation into the chemical weapons attack that has brought the war-torn country to the brink of a wider conflict, amid Western threats of retaliation and Russian warnings of the potential for "a dangerous escalation."

The fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to head to Douma, where the suspected attack took place and where Russia said rebels had now capitulated to government control. The Syrian government said it would facilitate the mission's investigation, which was to begin Saturday.

Syria and its ally, Russia, deny any such attack, which activists say killed more than 43 people last weekend.

Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the top priority had to be to avert a wider war, and he didn't rule out the possibility of a U.S.-Russia conflict. Speaking to reporters after a closed emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Nebenzia said Russia was very concerned with "the dangerous escalation" of the situation and "aggressive policies" and preparations that some governments were making — a clear reference to the Trump administration and its allies.

The U.S., France and Britain have been in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week, U.S. officials have said. A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the U.S. in the lead, could send a message of international unity about enforcing the prohibitions on chemical weapons.

Macron said Thursday that France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks and said France would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted."

After May met with her Cabinet, a spokesperson issued a statement saying it is highly likely that Syria's President Bashar Assad was responsible for Saturday's attack that killed dozens outside Damascus. The Cabinet agreed on the need to "take action" to deter further chemical weapons use by Assad, but added that May would continue to consult with allies to coordinate an international response.

Mattis said that although the United States has no hard proof, he believes the Syrian government was responsible for Saturday's attack. Initial reports indicated the use of chlorine gas, possibly in addition to the nerve agent Sarin. Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told NBC News on Thursday the administration has "enough proof" of the chemical attack but was still considering its response.


Local
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City and students celebrate Arbor Day

HANFORD — In honor of Arbor Day, the Lemoore Parks Department and students from John F. Kennedy Junior High School planted six trees in Civic Park Thursday.

The city has had an Arbor Day celebration for the last 23 years.

Alvin Dias said they usually just plant a few trees for Arbor Day to continue to participate in Tree City USA, a program that promotes conservation and education about the environment and trees.

Hanford is one of over 3,000 communities participating in this program.

For the 25th year celebration, Dias said the city may make it more celebratory although he does not know what that would look like yet.

April Silva said her community leadership class has celebrated Arbor Day with the city for the last five years.

One of her eighth-grade students, Frank Flores, said he thinks that planting trees makes the city look nicer.

“We get to help our community and grow a tree,” Flores said.

The JFK students have a green thumb. In addition to planting trees, they have plots in the community garden in south Hanford, a garden at school and have helped with the Children's Storybook Garden.

Silva said that she thinks it is important that the children show that their community is important to them.

Her class also does service at the Salvation Army and Kings SPCA Halfway Home.

Dias said  hundreds of trees get cut down annually in Lemoore. Last year, around 45 trees were cut down in the downtown area alone.

He said the trees are more stressed because of the drought and are catching more diseases than usual.

This year they planted three varieties of oak trees: scarlet, cork and southern live. Oaks tend to do well despite droughts.

Silvas said the city continually tries to replant trees to make up for the lost ones.


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Recognizing excellence in education

HANFORD — Growing up, though she did well in school, Catherine Koelewyn said becoming a teacher was not on her radar. It wasn’t until her husband suggested it that she realized she could help others in the way she always wanted to.

“Teaching is not just teaching, is it?” Koelewyn asked, and was met with nods from the crowd at the Civic Auditorium on Wednesday night. “There is so much more that we put into our day as educators.”

Koelewyn was named Kings County Office of Education’s teacher of the year at its 2018 Excellence in Education awards ceremony. The 37th annual awards ceremony also named an administrator and employee of the year.

“I am honored to stand among these great educators, support staff and administrators, and I am humbled to be counted as one of them,” Koelewyn said.

Koelewyn has worked in the education field for 14 years and is in her fifth year as a fifth-grade teacher at Pioneer Elementary School in the Pioneer Union Elementary School District.

Koelewyn said her philosophy of building relationships first with students in order to bring about their efforts in return is what she works on with her students on a daily basis.

“We work our fannies off in those classrooms to build relationships in order for students to feel loved, wanted, validated; and until that happens, they will not buy into us, our teaching or their own desire to learn,” Koelewyn said.

Koelewyn said she often refers to her job as her “mission field”. She previously told the Sentinel that her favorite part about teaching is when her students have that “aha” moment and they get to celebrate together.

She said her most proud moments are when she can connect, through hard work, to those students who have mentally and emotionally checked or have no desire to make an academic effort. She said when she makes that connection of trust with them, they pour into her, their education, and most importantly, themselves.

“Hopefully along the way, among the academic standards we present and help them master, they will learn important and lasting lessons of the heart and soul as well,” Koelewyn said.

All of the nominees were acknowledged at the ceremony and finalists were recognized with a video.

Administrator of the Year

The winner for Administrator of the Year was Loretta Black, principal of Cinnamon Elementary School in the Lemoore Union Elementary School District. Black started her career in education in 1996 as a teacher and has also been an assistant principal and learning coordinator, and is currently finishing her sixth year as principal of Cinnamon Elementary.

Black previously told the Sentinel that her favorite part of her job is watching the students grow and reach their goals. She also said she is proud of the hard work that the district’s teachers, staff and administrators have accomplished to make sure students are learning at high levels every day.

Wednesday night, Black said she was honored by the award and felt fortunate to be in the field of education for over two decades and being able to work with other wonderful educators.

“People that go into education are just the best,” Black said.

Black said she is thankful to have a lot of support from the district and everyone at Cinnamon Elementary comes to the school in the morning ready to do whatever it takes for the students.

Employee of the Year

Lionel Garza, custodian at University Charter School in the Lemoore Union Elementary School District, was named employee of the year. Garza has worked at the school for over 10 years as a custodian and was described as the epitome of the word “service”, in both his job and the community.

Garza previously told the Sentinel that the entire school has embraced him as an important part of the school, oftentimes interacting with the students in their classrooms. He said he enjoys being a positive role model and mentor and making a difference in the kid’s lives.

Garza thanked the school district and all administrators, teachers and staff for being a part of the team and trying to help the students together. He especially thanked Principal Crescenciano Camarena and the teachers who let him be a part of their lesson plans.

“I am very blessed to have this job,” Garza said Wednesday night. “I will continue to do my best and try hard to make a difference.”

Special Recognition

Tim Bowers, Kings County Office of Education superintendent of schools, was also recognized at the ceremony. Bowers, who started as a substitute teacher with the office of education 30 years ago, will retire in June from the position he’s held for eight years.

Bowers, who received a standing ovation from the crowd, said growing up he never thought he would be a teacher, let alone an administrator, and thanked everyone for their support.

“There have been numerous people that have propped me up, that have pushed me forward [and] that have helped me continue,” Bowers said. “I appreciate the love and I respect all of you.”


Local
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New solar project could come to Kings County

A huge solar project to be located in Kings County is in the planning stages, and developers are happy to possibly be coming back to the area.

Recurrent Energy, a project developer for solar and energy storage systems, is in talks with the county for a multi-year project, said Kelley Vendeland, director of marketing and communications for the company.

Mike Toomey, director of development for Recurrent Energy, said the new project, called the Slate project, is in the early stages and the company is currently working with the county on what the next steps will be.

Recurrent Energy, a subsidiary of Canadian Solar, develops projects primarily in California and Texas. The 300-megawatt project in Kings County would be located close to Lemoore on around 2,700 acres.

The county hasn’t provided Recurrent Energy with an official address yet, but the project location is described as being bounded by Avenal Cutoff Road to the northwest, Jackson Avenue to the north, the Kings River and 23rd Avenue to the east, and Laurel Avenue to the south.

The west boundary mainly follows unnamed, dirt agricultural roadways, Vendeland said. She said the land hasn’t been farmed in years, so it’s a good place for the project that puts the land back in use.

Vendeland said all the exact details of the project aren’t definite yet and variations are all being considered and looked at by both the company and the county to make sure everything works out.

This is not the first solar project for Recurrent Energy in Kings County. The company completed a 1,000-acre solar power facility on 25th Avenue near Lemoore in 2016 called the Mustang project.

“We’ve worked in Kings County and have had a lot of success,” Toomey said.

The Sentinel previously reported that at its peak, the 100-megawatt Mustang project created 450 jobs and generated $3.1 million in local spending on construction materials, services, food and housing. Vendeland said 76 percent of workers on that project were from a 50-mile radius of the project site.

“We expect the same from the Slate project,” Vendeland said.

Toomey said he expects this project would create about 560 jobs. He said the county has been proactive and very encouraging of the project.

When the project would start construction depends on a lot of factors, like negotiating a contract with a large energy buyer, but Toomey said he doesn’t expect work to start before the third quarter of 2019.

Toomey said major utility companies like PG&E and Southern California Edison have contracted with Recurrent Energy, but it is open to a wide variety of potential customers.

Once construction starts, Toomey said the project could take about 19 months to complete.