Should ESDs forgo elections and appoint members directly? Washington County is already doing that

This story has been updated.

COURTESY NWRESD - Rob Saxton, right, is the superintendent of Northwest Regional ESD. Under a state pilot program, the service district can't hold general elections to fill its board of directors, instead having member school districts appoint members. Some other Oregon ESDs have said they'd like to bring the model statewide.School districts working with the underserved across the state may have a new model for governing in the coming years, and they're looking at an often-overlooked district in Hillsboro as its model.

For years the Northwest Regional Education Service District has been quietly working to educate underprivileged students across northwest Oregon.

But unlike nearly every other ESD in Oregon, its board of directors isn't elected by the public, but appointed by the local school board.

ESDs are seldom talked about by the public, but they serve a vital function for school districts across the state. Working as umbrella governments, ESDs combine rare but expensive needs of several school districts together for better management.

Children with complex medical or social needs are taught in their programs and large technology purchases are made through them. Many children may have gone to Outdoor School through an ESD but probably didn't know who managed the educational camping trip.

For about a decade, NWRESD and a few others have been working on a pilot program that could change the way that ESDs are managed across the state.

In 2005, Oregon legislators passed House Bill 3184, which forced Northwest Regional ESD and two other districts — Willamette ESD in Salem and High Desert ESD in Central Oregon — to appoint board members, rather than hold public elections.

The idea, according to NWRESD Superintendent Rob Saxton, was to make sure ESDs are focusing on what districts needed.

"The general idea was that they wanted to ensure that the ESD board was being representative of the entire area, and paying greater attention to their customer base and what they want to receive in ESD services," said Saxton, who left the state's top education job in Salem, the deputy superintendent of public instruction, in 2015 to lead Northwest Regional ESD.

"In our ESD, we have Washington County, which has lots and lots of kids, but Tillamook doesn't have as many," Saxton noted. "Getting the right kind of representation makes it possible to make sure that the kids in those counties are being served well. Rather than having five people from Washington County running for the board, we make sure we have representatives from Astoria, too."

NWRESD is the largest education service district in the state, working with nearly two dozen school districts across Washington, Tillamook, Columbia and Clatsop counties.

Those school boards vote for local representatives to serve on the ESD's board. Those members in turn appoint four additional members, charged with representing the local business community, social services, higher education and one at-large position.

Jim Mabbott served as superintendent of Northwest Regional during the transition in 2005. He said he was initially resistant to the change, but soon grew to like it.

"I'd propose the legislation to take this statewide in a heartbeat," Mabbott said. "I don't think there'd be much of a problem … When (the state) asked us a couple of years ago if we'd ever want to go back to the old model, all three ESDs said no."

That's music to the ears of some ESD board members across the state, who say they want to switch to the appointment model, rather than go through costly elections every few years.

Stephen Marc Beaudoin, the board chairman of Multnomah Educational Service District serving Multnomah County, has said the pilot program is ready to expand statewide.

Beaudoin will step down from the board this summer when he moves to Washington, D.C., but told The Tribune he expects the service district to push for a change from elected ESD boards to board members who are appointed by the school districts.

"It makes absolutely no sense for ESD boards to be elected," Beaudoin said. MESD spent $97,450 to put its candidates for the three seats open for the May 2015 ballots, though the cost depends on how many candidates and open seats there are.

"After having served for almost two years, I have a strong personal belief that the appointed model is a more effective model for a lot of different reasons," Beaudoin said.

ESDs are difficult to explain to the general public, Mabbott said, and voters are often left uninformed about the issues, or who was running.

"People had no idea, and they would vote for the first name on the ballot," Mabbott said. "We serve the needs of school districts. We don't serve the general public or families outside of the classroom setting. Our school districts are our constituents, and to have them elect the school board makes a lot of sense to me."

Saxton said he has met with lawmakers and other ESD leaders about bringing the model statewide. He's just waiting for legislation to make it happen.

"There has been some interest in this from a few other ESDs who want to do this model, but nobody has started to carry it forward in earnest," he said. "At least, not yet."

Reporter Shasta Kearns Moore contributed to this article.

CORRECTION: More precise figures were given for the cost of MESD board elections.

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