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Multnomah ESD begins new chapter

Sam Breyer takes the helm in a period of massive change

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sam Breyer, Multnomah Education Service District superintendent, started his new job July 1 after a prolonged period of controversy and turmoil. Call it an “Individualized Education Program” for the district.

The term — familiar to parents of children with special education needs as an IEP — lists annual goals and measurable ways to achieve them. So it is analogous to the strategic plan Multnomah Education Service District’s new superintendent has in mind for how to rehabilitate a district that hasn’t been living up to its potential lately.

“The ESD really has the potential here to impact 100,000 students in Multnomah County,” says Superintendent Sam Breyer of the district, which provides special education, school health and many other services to all eight school districts in the county: Portland, Parkrose, Reynolds, Centennial, Riverdale, David Douglas, Corbett and Gresham-Barlow. “We know we aren’t getting the educational outcomes for students we want for kids across the spectrum of service, so I think the ESD has a role to play” in getting those educational outcomes.

Breyer hopped over at the beginning of the month from the Centennial School District, where he had been superintendent for four years. He was well-liked at his district and made educational equity a major theme in the rapidly diversifying district. However, a bond measure that was to be his parting legacy failed last May, despite having a middle school bursting at the seams.

Breyer is quick with a smile and speaks in administrative big-picture concepts. He couches most of his assertions on the need for “stakeholder input” and discussion with the region’s school districts.

One of those stakeholders is the district’s teachers union, a local of the Oregon Education Association. OEA representative Alan Moore says Breyer “blew the doors” off the superintendent search.

“He’s always been really impressive. He has a vision for what MESD could do for the children of the county, which is refreshing to see what he could do,” Moore says. Now that Superintendent Don Grotting has left the David Douglas School District for Beaverton, Moore says, Breyer is “one of the most thoughtful education leaders in the county.”

Time of turmoil

The selection of Breyer ends a long and winding path to new leadership for the service district, which has been mired in controversy for several years. The last permanent superintendent, Barbara Jorgensen, was pushed out by the board after a closed-door meeting of the county’s eight superintendents, who seemed to lack confidence in Jorgensen. An effort last summer to quickly fill the superintendency failed unexpectedly when the board decided not to make a selection at all. One of the two finalists was another component school district superintendent, Parkrose’s Karen Fischer Gray, who hosted the closed-door meeting that pushed the district board to oust Jorgensen.

Added to that was a very public and heated dispute with Oregon’s 2014 Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham, who said he experienced sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation at the hands of his employer. The district also lost its nonprofit foundation last summer to red ink, and lost its countywide early childhood intervention program a few years ago to the David Douglas School District.

Breyer hopes to put all that behind the district — less controversy among the adults and more focus on the kids.

“My preference would be that rather than talking to me about the management of the agency, that the media was focused on the good programs and the things that are going on with students,” he says. “Some of the turmoil, it’s just natural in leadership change.”

In addition to Breyer, there has been a lot of leadership change at the district recently. In May 2015, a wave of voter dissatisfaction brought in three new board members, and soon after that a fourth, who was appointed.

This month, the district also welcomed two new cabinet members — those who make up Breyer’s administrative team. Todd Greaves from Texas will serve as the district’s director of special education, replacing Kristine Beck, who retired this year. Sean Woodard came over from the Pacific Northwest College of Arts to replace Heyke Nickerson, who was given a six-month consulting contract last October yet was immediately replaced by interim HR director Dawn Strong. Nickerson was also the district’s legal counsel, but those duties are now contracted out to the Hungerford Law Firm.

As if that wasn’t enough change, three of its component districts are facing new leadership — Breyer’s own former district, Grotting’s move to Beaverton and now Portland Public Schools’ Carole Smith.

“This is a year about reset,” says MESD board chair Stephen Marc Beaudoin. “This is a year about bringing the agency together around shared goals.”

New approach

The idea behind education service districts is that they serve their constituent school districts’ needs that are beyond the day-to-day school life — school nurses, massive technology infrastructure, Outdoor School, students with disabilities and students with alternative education needs.

But much of the modern educational philosophy around treating kids with disabilities or those with brushes with the law has been changing in recent decades. These kids should no longer be considered “extra” and farmed out, and instead can enrich the mainstream school environments, say advocates and researchers.

That would represent a big structural change for a district that operates six schools for students who have been pushed out by their home districts.

Breyer says he has already heard from the region’s school districts that they want Multnomah ESD to design programs that integrate students with disabilities back into their mainstream classrooms.

This, he says, is aided by his passion for educational equity and racial diversity.

“I think education really is about empowerment,” Breyer says. “Kids have an amazing potential and when they aren’t realizing it, I feel like it’s our problem — not theirs.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Heyke Nickerson's name.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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