The Tuesday, May 15, Multnomah County Special Election presents an opportunity for voters to elect four directors to the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) Board. The remaining three director positions of the seven-member board will be elected in 2009. But what is the MESD and why should voters care?

Since the formation of Education Service Districts (ESDs) in 1849 - then a general arrangement between county schools to share common costs - the MESD has grown to employ 750 with an annual budget of $100 million. The MESD Board reviews and implements programs that directly affect the health and welfare of its eight school districts, 160 schools and 90,000 K-12 students in Multnomah County. School districts include Portland, Riverdale, Corbett, Reynolds, Gresham-Barlow, Centennial, Parkrose and David Douglas.

A discussion of the MESD and its role within the public school system, could not be more timely: the tragedies of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the recent shooting at Springwater Trail High School in Gresham, demand public scrutiny of existing efforts toward helping our youth.

The role of the MESD in Multnomah County is one of advocacy, education and intervention for the students, parents and families of Multnomah County. Communication begins one-on-one, person-to-person. The MESD focuses in particular on early childhood development. Importantly, involvement in children's issues must begin early and must be on continuum. In fact, as cautioned by Head Start co-founder Edward Zigler, Head Start Programs are a failure across the board without a community commitment to sequenced programs from K-12 that emphasizes communication skills.

In the fourth century A.D., Saint Augustine wrote, 'I learned most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me.' While it would be simplistic to assume that the MESD provides for every basic need, a review of the programs it implements shows a consistency for promoting and facilitating communications skills: Outdoor School; Home Schooling; English as a Second Language (ESL), English Language Learners (ELL) and American Sign Language (ASL) training; and therapy for brain-injured students; opportunities for the developmentally disabled; school health wellness and transition training for the physically disabled.

Arata School, for troubled K-12; Helensview, for teen parents; Donald E. Long Center, for incarcerated youth; and Alpha High School, a school-to-work program, are testimonies to the cooperative efforts of the MESD school districts in promoting alternative education opportunities.

The MESD is unique in its ability to provide inclusive programs and services across the districts. Instead of accepting as a foregone conclusion that a percentage of students will be 'lost in the system,' the MESD mission is to find challenged students and show them alternatives to frustration and disillusionment. It is worth a celebration when a withdrawn student, branded as an outcast, or a teen who wears his private anguish in public through confrontation and disruption, responds to the positive direction provided through MESD and graduates with pride from an alternative school environment.

The public will continue to be well served by MESD in its efforts to work with parents and teachers in validation and facilitating the social and emotional growth unique to each child. A primary value of MESD is recognizing that 'children are our most important natural resource.'

Gresham resident John H. Kilian is a candidate for MESD, director, position 2, at large.

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