ESD?merger plan clears Senate, heads to House

Mark Mulvihill talks with Leslie Devine after being named Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District superintendent last year. <BR><I>File photo</i>

A proposal to overhaul the way Oregon's education service districts operate and select board members looks more like a sure thing after clearing the state Senate last week.

Senate Bill 574 would, among other changes, shrink the number of ESDs in Oregon from 20 to 13. That plan includes a "dissolution"?of the Union-Baker Education Service District, then an "annexation"?of Union County into the Umatilla-Morrow ESD's service area.

But another part of the bill continues to draw ire from some educators, including the Umatilla-Morrow ESD:?Voters would no longer have the power to choose each ESD's board of directors.

"It means that how the board is selected is changed dramatically,"?said Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the Umatilla-Morrow ESD. "There's no open election."

The local process would shake out like this: Once Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties are divided into five zones, local school district boards would appoint an ESD board member from each one. Those five would then appoint four more to round out the nine-member ESD?board.

Whether any of those would include the Umatilla-Morrow ESD's seven existing board members is unclear.

"We have a very, very good board that really represents the various interests in the area,"?Mulvihill said. "And I hope that they would be appointed from their areas."

One of those board members is Jack Matlock. Serving the ESD for the past four years, he said he'd consider seeking an appointment should the new plan take effect as written. He previously served on the Pendleton School District board for 10 years, he said.

"This is where I?want to be,"?Matlock said, noting opposition to the proposed board selection model has been widespread in his and other ESDs.

Matlock said there could be some challenges resulting from the distance to cover a new area, but stressed the importance of maintaining essential services to the districts in whatever region the ESD encompasses.

The bill passed the Senate on a party-line 17-13 vote. Among the dissenting voices was Republican Sen. David Nelson of Pendleton, who argued and voted against the idea. That also could be the case among some rural House Republicans, but likely isn't enough to keep SB 574 from passing, Mulvihill said.

The bill in its current form uses the reorganization map suggested by the Oregon Association of Education Service Districts - a fact Mulvihill said he appreciates. And despite some misgivings elsewhere, he said he's "very excited"?for the potential the plan presents.

Mulvihill reiterated any reorganization won't affect the ESD's services to its 12 districts. Rather, it could even expand them with the addition of Union County to its coverage area, he said. And Union County's schools mirror Umatilla and Morrow counties' in terms of size and demographic - a fact that makes the transition a "natural fit,"?Mulvihill said.

ESDs provide extra programs and services for schools across Oregon. Those are crucial for districts facing declining enrollment and dwindling budgets, said Brenda Giesen, director of curriculum and instruction at the Pendleton School District. And that's especially true for smaller rural districts, she added.

"If the ESD wasn't there to partner with, there would be a lot ... that they would not be able to access," Giesen said.

Reducing the state's ESDs from 20 to 13 will streamline operations, Mulvihill said. But the notion that it will save the state money likely isn't true, he added.

"It's not a cost savings,"?Mulvihill said. "If we merge with Union County, we're still going to have to put staff in Union County."

If they get the green light from the House and Gov. Ted Kulongoski, as expected, the changes will take effect July 1, 2011. In working out the details of the shifts during the next two years, regional ESD?officials will be helped by the fact that many already know each other and are used to working together, Mulvihill said.

What form the Umatilla-Morrow ESD could take remains unclear. But Mulvihill said he's optimistic about the possible results.

"We're going to be able to provide more,"?he said, noting the addition will put both Blue Mountain Community College and Eastern Oregon University within its service area. "There's so much potential for this."

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