Ben Botkin / The Bulletin

In Central Oregon school districts, employees of the High Desert Education Service District help students with a variety of circumstances.

They work with special needs children who have learning challenges such as autism. They help children with physical needs get the right equipment, whether it's a grip to better hold a pencil or high-tech software to allow visually impaired students to read lessons. They offer early childhood special education classes for preschool children to prepare them for the classroom.

The state funding of and role of education service districts await discussion in the upcoming legislative session. There is no shortage of ideas about education service districts, both in funding and the role they play in regional education planning. The High Desert ESD is one of 19 education service districts in Oregon. The primary aim of ESDs is to provide services and programs to school districts on a regional scale that would be difficult or more expensive for a school district to do on its own.

Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget proposal calls for taking $120 million from the state funding for education service districts in the next biennium and investing that money into six regional centers that would train teachers.

That would be a 28 percent funding cut for education service districts. For the High Desert ESD, it would amount to a cut of $4.9 million in funding for those services for the 2013-2015 biennium.

That reduction would impact the services provided to the most vulnerable populations, said John Rexford, superintendent of the High Desert ESD.

The bulk of ESD funding for school services — 65 percent — goes to education programs for special needs children. Education service districts also provide other services, such as technology and attorneys.

“When people don't know a lot about us, they assume we're just another bureaucratic layer, and I think that's a misperception,” said Paul Andrews, deputy superintendent of the High Desert ESD.

By law, schools must provide the services to special education students, regardless of what is provided by the ESDs.

That means cutting the dollars amounts to a cut in funding for services that go directly to students, Rexford said.

“I think a lot of what the governor has in mind makes a lot of sense,” Rexford said. “We just have to make sure we don't rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Ben Cannon, the governor's education policy adviser, stressed that the governor's office is open to other ideas for the funding source for the educator training centers.

The purpose of the budget proposal was twofold, Cannon said. One of the goals is funding centers that will invest in teacher effectiveness and the other is to kick-start the conversation about how to accomplish that task, he said.

“The source of this wasn't about cutting ESDs,” Cannon said.

Locally, the High Desert ESD will watch the situation unfold as legislators get to work. Noting the potential for other options to emerge, Rexford said it would be premature to craft a detailed plan for cuts based solely on the governor's proposal.

“We're not spending a lot of energy with a worst-case scenario,” he said. “We just know that what we spend money on is service to special needs children, and under any large scenario like that, those services would be impacted.”

State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said investing in centers that equip teachers is laudable if there's an additional source of funding that doesn't pare back existing education spending.

By trimming ESD budgets, the governor's proposal would impact school districts because they still need to provide the services for students, Knopp said.

“If the funding were on top of that basic level, that would be OK,” he said. “In this situation, it's not, so I would oppose the diversion of the funds.”

The ESD has 215 employees, or the equivalent of 183 full-time staff.

About two-thirds work in special education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade and early childhood and intervention programs for youngsters not yet in kindergarten.

Those services for preschool children offer therapy and instruction that address needs such as cerebral palsy, hearing and vision impairments and communication challenges.

“What we are set up to do is ... those activities that provide efficiencies for school districts that because of economies of scale may not make sense for a school districts to do alone,” Andrews said.

Other ideas

Separately, the state's Education Service District Task Force released a list of recommendations for ESDs this week. The task force, started by Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew and Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton, was focused on the broader structural system of the districts and how they provide services in the long term.

The recommendations aren't at odds with the governor's budget proposal, nor do they directly support it.

Under one recommendation, if a school district chose not to use ESD services, the state funding for those services would go the school district for any use. That recommendation calls for phasing in the change by the 2015-16 school year.

In a Friday memo to staff, Rexford said that approach would create a “free-market approach to regional services.”

“Our ability to deliver value for all our customers will become even more important,” Rexford wrote.

The task force does give recommendations for setting up centers to train and support teachers that Kitzhaber wants to fund. To provide for the centers for teachers, the Oregon Department of Education would contract with providers after advertising for proposals.

Those providers, in turn, would need to partner with ESDs, colleges and K-12 schools.

The task force also calls for education service districts to play a lead role in crafting regional achievement compacts. Those compacts, with input from schools and communities within the ESD, would outline how the region will do its part toward boosting student achievement and reaching the state's 40/40/20 goals. Those goals say that by 2025, 40 percent of adults will have a bachelor's degree or higher, 40 percent will have an associate degree or other post-secondary credential, and 20 percent will have a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Those 40/40/20 goals are tied, as well, to the effort to start centers devoted to teacher training and professional development.

The budget proposal aside, the task force's work in looking at ESDs and how to potentially improve them is a good exercise, Cannon said.

“Everything in that report is geared to providing high-quality services at a better price,” Cannon said.

The High Desert Education Service District is one of 19 in the state, offering programs that school districts often can't. Its core service region covers Deschutes and Crook counties, but it also provides services to Jefferson and outlying counties. The programs, geared toward kids or the school districts themselves, are varied (and detailed at right).