A merger between the Union-Baker Education Service District and the Umatilla-Morrow ESD is more rumor that likelihood, said an Oregon Department of Education official.

Vickie Fleming, deputy superintendent for the state department of education, said a merger between the two Eastern Oregon agencies is "the most drastic action we could take," but it would be a last resort.

The Union-Baker ESD, which provides specialized programs to nine school districts in Union and Baker counties, is under investigation by the FBI after an internal audit showed that both federal and state funds were improperly funneled to the district because of inflated enrollment figures.

Fleming said the rumor of the merger surfaced after she testified last week before the House Education Committee about the situation. Fleming said that only the superintendent of state schools can mandate a merger and "we are not at this time considering that option."

Right now, the state department of education is trying to schedule a standardization team to go to the Union-Baker agency to analyze and review contracts.

"We're working with the attorney general's office and the Department of Justice in timing the team's visit to keep from interfering with the criminal investigation," Fleming said. That visit could happen Monday, she noted.

The standardization team can determine if the ESD is meeting the required standards to meet student needs, Fleming said. The team will then identify corrective actions to submit to the Department of Education for approval.

"We are responsible for the dollars that go to the agency and to make sure those funds are used responsibly," Fleming said of the state.

However, should a merger be required, Umatilla-Morrow ESD officials are receptive to the idea.

"If our agency becomes larger, we could expand the scope of our services," said George Murdock, superintendent of the Umatilla-Morrow ESD. "Our schools would benefit from that larger scope of services."

While Murdock acknowledges a merger between the two agencies would mean "a lot more work" for employees, he said the long-term benefits would be "well worth it."

By consolidating administrative services, they would become more efficient, Murdock said, so more funding could be used for student services rather than administrative costs.

Murdock said that regardless of how the Union-Baker issue is resolved, the most important thing to remember is the services to the students.

"The bottom line is making sure the students in those areas continue to receive the same services," Murdock said. "We're just interested in lending a hand, whether it's short-term or long-term."

Fleming said she is not sure how long the Union-Baker ESD issue will take to resolve because of the uncertainty of the criminal investigation.

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