Sunday, November 20, 2005

Another reason to eliminate ESD's

Did you catch wind of the tawdry goings-on at Willamette ESD? Just another example of why ESD's have to go: the people who run them think they are their own private feifdoms.

The short story: the migrant education director, Nicolasa Mohs, was a disaster of an employee. Nepotism, padded expense reports, misuse of ESD resources - you name it. The ESD had the good sense to fire her.

So she filed an "intent to sue" letter, which claimed she was the victim of favoritism paid to her co-worker, who she claimed was having a lesbian affair with the ESD superintendent. The super decided she better settle, and so gave the woman a consulting contract for $8,000+ a month, and paid her attorney fees!

[Update 11-22: The Statesman Journal has a follow-up article discussing what possible official action might be taken against the ESD Superintendent. For some reason, while explaining what happened, the S/J left out the very significant detail that the "intent to sue" letter charged that the Sup't was having a lesbian affair with the co-worker. This is relevant because it goes directly to the question of why the sup't would settle so quickly a discrimination case that seems so weak. Why would the S/J leave that out?]

Now it's all blowing up in their faces, as it well should. One board member resigned, because the super never consulted the board on the settlement.

This kind of stuff is all too common at ESD's. The problem is that ESD's fly under the radar screen of public awareness. Most people have very little idea what they do, who runs them, and how they operate, so the administrators usually do what they want and are never held accountable.

The "leaders" of ESD's make a good deal of money. They are compensated like school district superintendents, yet the job is nowhere near as difficult, time consuming or stressful. ESD's receive direct funds from the state in the neighborhood of $100 million per year - yet there is very little public scrutiny or even awareness of what they do with the funds.

What DO they do? Well, lots of things. ESD's provide all sorts of services to school districts. Data management, payroll, nursing, itinerant special education, ESL, and a host of other things. For the money the ESD's get from the state, they are supposed to provide a basket of services to districts that are negotiated. These are called "resolution services."

For services not on the resolution services list, ESD's charge fees to districts. They also get grants for various projects they run. A publicly elected board is supposed to oversee them.

Here's the deal: why do we provide direct funding to ESD's in the first place? It makes no sense to give the money to the ESD's, and then have them negotiate with all the school districts in their territory to decide what services to provide.

Why not just send that money to the school districts, and if they need to purchase those services, they can negotiate with the ESD's (or another provider) for them? That would force the ESD's compete for the business. If they are the best provider, great. If not, they shouldn't be guaranteed the contracts.

There is no reason why ESD superintendents should make $130,000 a year with annuity, car allowance, expense accounts, etc. These positions are really pretty much functionary. Mid-level bureaucrats. Yet they run around as if they are big shot education leaders - it would be funny if it was not the taxpayer dime. You can bet your bottom dollar if the ESD's had to compete, provide services at a competitive price, they wouldn't be blowing their budgets on overpaid bureaucrats, which is precisely what most ESD superintendents are.

I've pitched this idea in the legislature, and never got much traction. Every session there are bills to "consolidate" ESD's, supposedly to get better efficiency. That misses the point - ESD's should be ended as we know them.

Make them compete. If they provide valuable services, then school districts will pay for them. If not, they don't deserve the money.

6 comments:

gus miller said...

If I were elected governor, the first thing I would do is request a spreadsheet of every state dollar spent on K-12 public education. From the cost of my education advisor to Teacher Standards and Practices Commission to ESDs to Department of Education to per-student funding in the districts.

I have a hunch there is far too much administrative redundancy in this thinly populated state with fewer students statewide than attend the New York City public school system.

Anonymous said...

What a mess at WESD! However, these messes at ESDs are not all that common, the few that happen just get lots of press. Also, only the three Metro-area ESD supts make the $130k/year you reference; the other 17 make much less. You also failed to mention that the primary source of ESD funding is the federal government/special education, and that special education is the largest service Oregon ESDs provide.

Anonymous said...

You also fail to accurately describe how the funding/services work at ESDs. ESDs receive a small per pupil amount from the state; all districts within in the same ESD region decide which core services that ESD will provide for all of its districts; each district then receives the same number of "service credits" (each worth $1) as it has students, which can be used to "purchase" services from the ESD...but they don't really "purchase" them because the ESD already "has" those funds for serving those students/districts.

Yes, the funds could go directly to the districts, but since the vast majority of the districts in Oregon are rural, even if those districts received the funds directly, they would not be adequate to give those districts the capacity to provide the same services as the ESDs do. Most states have ESDs or something like them, so Oregon is not unique. The urban/rural split makes Oregon ESDs very tricky.

I agree they need reform, but I'm not sure the best way to do that; eliminating them completely probably is not the best thing for students and districts.

Rob Kremer said...

Anonymous:

I think I did accurately describe how the funding/services at ESD's work - I just didn't go into detail because it was not necessary to make my point.

And that point still stands - if districts have what amounts to vouchers they redeem at ESD's for the resolution services, that means that ESD's are guaranteed the business. They shouldn't. Give the money to the school districts.

Make the ESD's compete. It doesn't matter if the ESD is rural or not. If the ESD is the best provider, the districts will buy the services from them. If not, they will go elsewhere.

I'm not saying we should eliminate ESD's. I'm saying they should not get directd funds from the state school fund.

I'm also not saying that the money would be sufficient to provide the services that they get from the ESD in house. I'm saying that they would go look for the best provider - and if that is the ESD, then great.

Dare!PDX said...

Rob

This is a great explanation of the ESD system. It was my understanding from reading the Oregonian that their main mission was to address PPS schooling of juvenilles in jail or treatment facilities. How much of this is their function compared to the other service provided? Is it even close to half?

Sharon said...

Gus,
From your other post I would expect yo would be too busy leading anti-war rallies if governor.