Southern Oregon Education Service District occupational therapist Daniel Lee helps first-grader Andre Velez with a puzzle at Orchard Hill Elementary School in Medford. ESDs are undergoing fiscal scrutiny by the Legislature, but Southern Oregon school district officials say they support the local ESD. - Julia Moore

School officials fight for ESDs

Southern Oregon school officials have banded together to oppose an Oregon Senate bill that would allow school districts to opt out of education service districts.

Senate Bill 250 would allow school districts to secede from their regional service districts, which provide special education, migrant education, technical services and professional development. The bill would entitle districts that opt out to receive their prorated share of state funding now budgeted for operation of ESDs.

"I would be really against it because it would hurt districts, particularly small districts," said Don Alexander, superintendent of the rural Prospect School District.

The Southern Oregon Education Service District provides all of Prospect's special education services, foreign language instruction and a menu of online courses that Prospect can't provide on its own, Alexander said.

Superintendents from all school districts in the Southern Oregon Education Service District's service region in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties recently wrote a letter to state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, unanimously calling for defeat of the bill. The superintendents said they rely on and value services by the Southern Oregon ESD and worry that opt-outs by large districts and the correlating loss of funding would destabilize ESDs and wipe out programs for special needs students in small school districts.

But Bates said Southern Oregon ESD is an exception in a system that has allowed other ESDs, namely the Willamette and Union Baker ESDs, to survive amid gross mismanagement and superfluous bureaucracy.

"We need more oversight so abuses can't occur," Bates said. "We have been lucky in Southern Oregon, but our ESD is atypical in that they do a great job."

Scott Perry, superintendent of Southern Oregon ESD, said the bill penalizes all ESDs for the transgressions of a few.

"Realistically, what would happen is the ESD would be severely diminished and some ESDs might even go away," Perry said.

Walt Wegener, superintendent of Baker City schools, said local districts fed up with the Union Baker ESD formed a consortium 13 years ago to provide the services typically delivered by an ESD through a subcontracting system. The ESD still receives 10 percent of the ESD funding, he said. Under the bill, the districts could simply opt out and use that extra 10 percent for services.

"We take care of ourselves, and all we want to do is continue to take care of ourselves," said Wegener, who spoke in favor of the opt-out bill during hearings Feb. 8 and 10.

He said an opt-out system would make the ESDs that survive healthier by adding an element of competition.

ESDs have existed since the start of statehood as a means to provide services that are expensive but not widely used. For example, instead of each school district hiring a speech pathologist for a handful of students, the ESD hires one who can be used in multiple districts.

ESDs now receive 4.75 percent of state school funding to provide services for students with special needs, professional development and technical services. In 2010-2011, that equaled about $193.9 million, including federal stimulus dollars.

The Southern Oregon ESD received about $16.2 million of that, according Howard George, Southern Oregon ESD business manager. That equals about $287 per pupil, which could be returned to a school district if it opted out. It's unclear what would happen to revenue coming from local property taxes.

In his recommended budget earlier this month, Gov. John Kitzhaber proposed eliminating funding for ESDs altogether and sending it directly to school districts, then giving districts the choice to either fund an ESD themselves or look for other options.

That proposal didn't gain steam, but lawmakers are still considering the opt-out option. If voted into law, the bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2013.

Amendments are currently in the works and could be ready by next week, Bates said. He said his support hinges on what the amendments are. Lawmakers' goal is to minimize cuts to education, but with a $3.5 billion state budget shortfall, they also will have to make sure what they do fund is efficient, he said.

"Some ESDs may need to be dissolved," Bates said. "Ours might survive, but if you can't show value then we can't keep giving you money."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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