ESDs – A View From the Boondocks

by Rob Myers

I just finished reading Wayne Brady’s blog “Real ESD Reform” (Oregon – 1/10/06) – while Mr. Brady’s observations and suggestions are reasoned and thoughtful, and I agree at least philosophically with much of what he said, I think maybe it’s about time someone infused the general ESD colloquy with a true and valid rural perspective — and even though I’m just an ol’ country boy from Condon, I think I’ll give it a shot:

Since 1999 I have worked closely with and provided legislative representation for the five Frontier Rural ESDs – North Central, Grant, Wallowa, Lake and Harney – all of which are located in Eastern Oregon. By extension I directly and/or indirectly represent most of the school districts contained within the service areas of these five ESDs and by further extension the interests and welfare of almost 6,500 rural and frontier rural K-12 students.

There are currently twenty ESDs in Oregon, all of which have been conveniently bundled together and charged with primary culpability for what was commonly described during the 2005 legislative session as the “ESD Problem”. It’s notable that not once during the session was anyone able to articulate exactly what the ESD Problem was — just that there was one and it fairly cried out to be solved. Few things are more inherently dangerous from a legislative standpoint than a solution in search of a problem, and the general confusion caused by that inverse approach is — fortunately and with a special thanks to House leadership – why no random statutory order was enacted imposing changes in ESDs that under the circumstances would have been either -1) purely cosmetic; or -2) arbitrary and categorically harmful.

Central to the issue of ESD reorganization and reform are the indisputable and extraordinary demographic and fiscal dissimilarities between and among ESDs, the necessary differences in how they function and the diverse requirements placed on them by the school districts they serve. Yet, these very real distinctions are unfailingly overlooked as certified smart folks toil with great fervor to crack the ESD conundrum. Simple arithmetic would indicate that eliminating or consolidating five of the twenty ESDs would solve 25% of the Problem, so that’s almost always the first Real Nifty Idea conjured up by the various and vainglorious think tanks self-entrusted with the somber task of ESD reformation. And, not surprisingly, the five ESDs consistently selected to disappear are the frontier ESDs — I mean, shoot – they only serve a shade over one percent of Oregon’s K-12 student population and they’re all over there in the boondocks so who’d miss “˜em, right? Plus, not only can it can be made to appear that Significant ESD Reform is underway, just as importantly the large urban ESDs remain unharmed and unaltered in the process – a peripheral but vital ingredient in any solution typically proffered by the foxes who have traditionally guarded the henhouse.

Never mind the pesky-but-provable fact that the frontier ESDs collectively consume less than three percent of the total state funds allocated for ESD operations and three of the five actually return money to the state because they receive less funding than their tax bases generate. For added fiscal perspective, the combined total of the five frontier ESDs’ operating revenues is less than 3.9% of the combined totals of just six urban ESDs in the northern Willamette Valley.

Demographic comparisons are no less striking — student population density in the frontier ESD service areas per ADM (Average Daily Membership) averages 0.22 students per square mile. By comparison, student population density per ADM in the four Portland Area ESDs is 38.71 per square mile, and the functional density per ADM in terms of service delivery proximity in the urban area is over 72.0 per square mile — or roughly 328 times the functional service density of the frontier ESD service area. The total area served by the five frontier ESDs is nearly 30,000 square miles, or approximately 30% of Oregon — there are 11,000 more people in Washington County than in all of Eastern Oregon.

How would the already fragile economies of rural communities be affected? Eliminating North Central ESD in Gilliam County would have the equivalent economic impact of eliminating Nike or laying off every teacher in the Portland Public School system.

Perhaps the best way to describe the frontier ESDs and the manner in which they are obligated to deliver quality educational services is that they are “unique”. Delivering educational services to fewer than 6500 students scattered across 30,000 square miles of rugged and inhospitable terrain is indeed a unique endeavor requiring unique delivery methodologies administered by unique individuals and organizations.

For these and many other reasons it is pure folly to suggest that elimination or consolidation of the frontier ESDs will somehow result in the overall enhancement of institutional and/or systemic efficiencies or effectiveness. Elimination of these organizations would serve only to further disadvantage frontier rural students. And, while we’re on the subject – with all the talk about urban tax dollars being diverted to rural schools it’s instructive to note that the average urban high school offers around 200 courses to its students, while the average frontier rural high school offers 40 courses. Well, yeah, but how about all that administrative waste? With very few exceptions the local school districts I represent have one — that’s ONE — administrator, who functions concomitantly as the district superintendent, high school principal and grade school principal — in addition many of them teach in the classroom, coach and provide other essential district services. Between the five frontier ESDs there are a total of 3.3 FTE superintendent positions that pay an average salary of less than $55,000 for each ESD — that’s $85,000 less per year than the average salary of two of the four ESD superintendents in the Portland area.

Before I continue I’d like to make a couple of things very clear – the purpose of these contrasts is not to elevate the relative importance of educating rural students above their urban counterparts or to engage in yet another rural vs. urban debate. I believe in quality educational opportunity for every child in Oregon, but I also believe it’s imperative that folks are adequately informed with respect to the unavoidable variations in the methodologies and expense associated with providing quality educational services across the state. It’s impossible to properly assess the myriad dissimilarities that distinguish rural and urban Oregon without first dispelling the myths that too often cloud the dialogue. It is not a myth that urban tax dollars help support rural education — it is provably a myth that those dollars are somehow being misspent or wasted on nonessential items. Oregon owes its children a basic education, and that basis is necessarily different in Gresham, Salem or Eugene than it is in John Day, Enterprise or Fossil. The problems created by declining enrollment are neither more nor less important than those created by runaway growth, just as educating rural students is neither more nor less important than educating urban students. But one thing is clear – we don’t need another pedagogical white paper or ODE study to tell us what basic service level is — spend a day in the pickup with me and I’ll show you what it looks like.

Now let’s cut to the chase — the five frontier rural ESDs have had bulls-eyes painted on their chests for four consecutive legislative sessions, and each time we have avoided elimination and/or consolidation by -1) providing sufficient indisputable data to create a proper legislative frame of reference specific to the efficiency, effectiveness and critical importance of educational services delivered by the frontier ESDs; and -2) exposing for what they are the vacuous, self-serving and by now time-worn arguments used to justify getting rid of us. This legitimate advocacy has been deliberately and too often for purposes of political expediency misrepresented as – among other deprecating terms – “obstructionism” or “turf protection”. It is in fact a solemn obligation we have assumed and remain committed to on behalf of the five frontier rural ESDs, thirty school districts, numerous communities — and, most importantly — 6500 kids who not only deserve but are righteously entitled to equitable opportunity for a quality education.

Disingenuous characterizations of our honest and honorable efforts conveniently discount the reality that throughout the 2005 legislative session we proposed and promoted an ESD funding plan that would have mandated fiscal and functional responsibility for ALL of Oregon’s ESDs. Put simply (we recognize that implementation, while certainly feasible, would be more complex) our plan recommends elimination of the ESD allocation from the State School Fund, replaced by a requirement that each ESD receive only those revenues actually generated by its tax base. Each ESD would then be required to live within those finite means, and as a result over $100,000,000 in unconstrained funds would be redirected annually to local school districts for investment in whatever services they deem necessary.

Reallocated ESD funds would flow to districts through a component in the funding vehicle that applies an equity formula assuring just apportionment of these resources to districts regardless of the obvious disparities in tax base valuation and a reasonable funding floor for the smallest ESDs. School districts could then purchase services from whomever they conclude would do the best overall job of providing those services, and a nonaligned marketplace would determine which ESDs survive and which do not. Desired efficiencies would develop naturally and incrementally from the need to engage successfully in a competitive business environment — by any measure a win-win scenario for school districts and for students. The inevitable result would be school districts and students who receive the best services at the least cost, coincidentally reaping the significant institutional benefits of fiscal responsibility, operational efficiency and educational excellence — which, after all, are supposed to be the principal goals of ESD improvement.

[Ron is 58 years old and have lived in Oregon my entire life. He reside in Condon, where my family settled 121 years ago. He is married and have one son who lives in Oregon City. Ron attended Condon Grade School, Condon High School and Oregon State University and is now a self-employed interaction management consultant engaged in the business of consulting and lobbying for several rural and frontier rural Eastern Oregon clients. His areas of particular expertise and experience are telecommunications, education and health care — my clients are, have always been and will always be exclusively rural and frontier rural. Among other activities Ron sits on the Oregon Telecommunications Coordinating Council, the Eastern Oregon Telecommunications Consortium board, the Oregon Republican Party Rural-Urban Bridge Committee and the State Interoperability Executive Council Partnership Committee. Ron also acts as a special assistant to the Co-Chairs of the 2005 Public Commission on the Legislature and is currently a declared candidate for the office of Gilliam County Judge.]