Public Service Requires Public Servants

By Zak Johnson of Portland, Oregon. Zak is the vice-chair of the Multnomah Education Service District Board.

Yesterday's Oregonian carried the news that former Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto has filed to run for the board of the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD). Of concern is that Giusto is running unopposed. I don't mention this as a concern because of Giusto's questionable past--in face-to-face conversations I've had with Giusto, I've found him to be amiable and surprisingly well-informed on many issues. Whether losing his badge for "moral unfitness" was justified or whether he was tagged as the lone individual to have to pay for the embarrassments of the Goldschmidt years is a question I'll leave to the voters. Or at least I would, if Giusto had an opponent. That he runs unopposed, not his background, is the much more disturbing point.

The 20 Education Service Districts (ESDs) in Oregon perform essential public services by providing expertise in hard-to-develop special and alternative education and nursing programs, as well as helping school districts save money and stabilize staffing by pooling resources and personnel. The budgets of many ESDs are in the tens of millions of dollars of public money. Despite this, ESDs are not well-known to the public, though they do attract a lot of attention when budget cuts are considered in Salem. Perhaps the most well-known of the MESD's programs is the Outdoor School, a popular program probably few county residents realize is MESD run.

School board members, including those on the ESDs, have a few key responsibilities that cannot be done by others. The core ones are supervising their superintendents, program reviews, oversight and approval of budgets, and looking out for the interests of students, parents and district staff. To do the job properly requires about 20-30 hours a month minimum, more during labor negotiations if these do not resolve quickly.

Unfortunately, these critical positions for oversight of our student's well-being and the public's funds, in addition to being time-consuming, are also unpaid. This means filling them is a difficult chore. I was unaware of Giusto's interest in serving on the board until after he filed; having learned of it, I wish him nothing but success. But prior to his filing, I had numerous conversations with community activists in the district for which he filed (the incumbent is stepping down) to urge a qualified, compassionate resident to come forward to serve. I was not successful. This is not surprising, given the demands of the job and the desire of most people to do it well if they do it at all.

Considering the low amount of publicity school boards receive, I find many of the comments posted in reply to the Oregonian article accusing Giusto of using the election as a "back door to political power and of course the money" to be laughable. Most people in the county have never heard of the agency; and of those who have, I seriously doubt many (other than Jane Netboy or Jim Robison, of course) could name a single board member.

A school board is not a backdoor to power, trust me; or trust Ron Saxton if you will. Serving on a school board is a service position, pure and simple. Like other service positions in the state, if we want the best people to serve then it's time we started compensating them for their time. IMHO, this ought to include our state legislators, who currently make only half of what their counterparts in Washington earn, and it ought to include school boards.

In the meantime, if anyone is upset with Giusto's unopposed run for the board, I only have one question: "Why didn't you?" If the answer is time and money, remember that thought the next time the issue of pay for publicly elected officials comes up.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    Zak and I are colleagues but that makes my agreement with his points none the less principled. Our communities need qualified and thoughtful people in these positions and the best way to get that is through some sort of comparison process, such as a contested election. Our reluctance to compensate people for time spent on the general interest baffles me. For many of us 30-40 hours per month of work would generate actual income rather than the doubtful gratitude of the public and the general criticism when noticed.

  • hdc (unverified)

    Then hire them. I have not been in a state gov. office in the last 15 years (I worked for Texas, LA, Oregon) where that suggestion isn't ridiculed at the director level and above. When I suggested it here- I'm sure the terms had something to do with it- Kari called it "the dumbest idea ever posted here". The point is that all selection processes confound 'experience' with 'going along to get ahead'. When other agencies are able to label any disagreeing opinion as "disgruntled", and you accept that prima facie, you effectively weed out everyone that lives by a different ethic. We accomodate every bias in the job selection process; how about some concrete provisions for whistle blowers? They're the best employees, generally. Very few have any career after they exercise their conscience.

    I'm old fashioned that way. I think all leadership is service. That is a big, big, big, threat that is met with incredible brutality by those that are there for the perks. I assume I'm parsing your post correctly. In the context you're talking, I'm saying service <> career. That's not saying it can't be, it's saying that areas like the ESD, given the real world context, shouldn't be.

    As it stands today, I have started my own business, after being blacklisted by DHS for not committing fraud on command. I have not interviewed for a director level or above position, since 2001, without being described an out and out con. Seeing leadership as service was the point in the 80s/90s. Today, you would have to make the business legit., before even mentioning the idea again. It's hard to introduce a service ethic when the business is out to screw the public and is conceptualized to be self-serving.

    At a very minimum, this is costing you major buck in state gov. The best way to save money is to cut head count. I can walk into most departments and redesign the workflow and software to significantly reduce head count while delivering more services, better. There is no interest in that, and no reinforcement for that behaviour in state government. Rather, you are see with hostility as an 'empire killer" by those that only measure progress in terms of their personal "reports".

    I guess this proposal seems like walking into a mafia family and telling them that St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy, and start preaching voluntary poverty. They might be intrigued, but it ain't gonna work until they get legit.

    Obviously, not all these problems apply in your area. I mention it because I think every business could benefit from your proposal, and given what new job seekers are demanding, it's something they will have to do anyway. I take you at your word, tough. You can bet I'll be sending a resume in to the ESD.

    So, am I reading the service <> career bit wrong, or are you saying that there wouldn't be a major mutiny among existing employees at the idea? My experience at DHS was that it would take an auditor over every shoulder to get business done legally. Extending a true service metaphor would take replacing the management. When the leg. passes a bill, and they find a way around it, they really believe that they are doing that to serve you better. Their circular, self-validating, incestuous logic is so entrenched that talking about real service is met with outright hostility. I have been told, in person, by 3 of the top 5 people at DHS, that 'people who think like you're talking about self-select out of the system...and it's for the best'.

    It also doesn't work, as is. Your state IT is a decade out of date, way over legit. cost, and totally "siloed". Your state gov web functionality is inferior to every state of similar means, and inferior to most, at any rate. Their budget is among the greatest. They literally don't know what the CUA is and have never reviewed code against it. Yes, your ideas could do a lot of good as there's so much to do, early gains will be easy. There are legions that think this way. You have to push the doorkeepers back enough for us to get a toe in though.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Education Service Districts are important but practically unknown to John and Jane Q. Public. My child received services (speech therapy) through Multnomah ESD for years, so I particularly appreciate what the ESDs do. OF COURSE we want these ESDs to be competently managed. OF COURSE the people running them ought to be paid at least a modest amount. Ditto for the "regular" school boards. But do we? No. It all seems to be part of that quaint Oregon tradition of not compensating elected officials adequately: some sort of throwback to the days when the legislature met a few weeks in the year, and things like school boards met a few hours a month.

  • rlw (unverified)

    We had an experience with no management of an ESD employee who purported to be native american and was a destructive influence in our final years at whitebread Beaverton School Districts. I searched till my fingers fell off for a single tel number that did not lead directly to her to deal with a situation that was non-sexual boundary violations poorly handed by Beaverton High School. There was absolutely NO identified resource to get some help. At ESD you do NOT just call and talk to whoever answers without really knowing who you talk to and how they relate to the whole. ESD is tiny, and you need to be careful if there is a volatile situation. She is gone now, and her rage and pretense at academic support to children that were really pow wows and crafts classes and badgering children for not doing their homework during the breaktimes from the ACTIVITY. It was a sad squander of essentialy nonexistent money, and also children's final years to turn things around. I am a staunch supporter of ESD. But in our case, the native children are just not getting professionally accountable help! Academics can be supported via strengthened cultural support, but they are not one and the same...... and there are times when MATH lessons are called for, not another G.D. pow wow.

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