Serving schools: ESD superintendents reflect on operations, priorities

For the Basin Business Journal | July 10, 2024 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — Educational service districts are government-mandated agencies put in place to provide services to school districts across the state. ESD Superintendents discussed what they do and their priorities in operating their districts.

ESD 105, led by Superintendent Kevin Chase, serves four counties, including Kittitas, Yakima and portions of Klickitat and Grant counties and provides support for 25 school districts – including Royal School District and Wahluke School District – and more than 66,000 students.  

“We help them collaborate with each other as well or collaborate with other partners,” Chase said. “(It’s) a lot of advocacy work, either regionally or across the state, or even federally, working on different issues that impact our education. And we provide very specialized services in certain situations in order to meet the needs of our students in our region and of our school districts.”

Superintendent Michelle Price of the North Central ESD, also known as ESD 171, discussed her district’s priorities. The NCESD serves 29 school districts in this region, which includes Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties. These districts serve over 40,000 students.

“In the realm of student support, we provide all kinds of opportunities that would help with student outcomes in each school district,” Price said. “For instance, connected learning. We have a whole team on the ground that helps connect industry partners and school districts to help make experiences available for students that they would not otherwise have, to explore careers, to investigate careers and maybe even to go into internships and apprenticeships.”

The NCESD offers more than 140 programs and services that address all areas of K-12 education and administration, according to the NCESD website. Some of these services are directed toward school districts more than directly to students.

“We provide districts with the service they need in real-time,” she said. “We don’t tell them what to do authority and autonomy lies with each school district superintendent and school board.”

Chase said school districts can vary greatly.

“All districts are completely different,” he said. “It’s really interesting to see their location, the makeup of the student body, the area of need, in terms of size. Our smallest district probably has 40 kids and our largest district is running at 16,000, and then we have everything in between.”

ESD 123’s Superintendent, Steve McCullough, said despite these differences, usually an issue is affecting more than one school district. Based out of Pasco, ESD 123 serves 23 school districts in seven counties of Southeastern Washington – including Othello School District – with more than 70,000 students, according to ESD 123’s website. 

“If one school is suffering or struggling with an issue, there are others that are probably having some similar problems as well. So as a superintendent, I keep up on all the different educational trends,” he said. “All the ESD superintendents, we meet consistently to talk about what’s happening in our regions, so we’ve been on top of those different trends. We are meeting with legislators, we’re talking at both the federal and state level to keep up on what’s going on, so that we can make sure that we’re staying ahead of some of those trends.”

With most ESDs, a small percentage of funds come from the state, with the rest coming from a combination of federal grants, state grants and service fees with its school districts, Chase said.

“One thing that’s good about ESDs is we’re kind of an aggregator in some ways,” Chase said. “So let’s say I have four small districts that all can’t afford … a school psychologist. They can’t afford a full-time one, and they don’t need a full-time one, but together, four of them can have a full-time school psychologist. And then we hire the psychologist.”

Student Assistance Professionals are another staff position ESDs often provide in Eastern Washington, McCullough said. He said these positions were funded through COVID relief funds and emergency funding.

“Those (positions) weren’t funded this last legislative session, but they were highly effective, with a lot of data to back up their effectiveness in the school,” he said. “So all the ESDs will be, along with OSPI, bringing those issues back to the legislature next year, as a way to say, ‘Hey, this is a need of our school districts. This is what we did and how successful it was, please fund it moving forward.’”

Price said her district analyzes data in addition to meeting regularly with school districts to determine the need for other services. 

“(We use) qualitative data and quantitative data to figure out where those services are needed,” she said. “We will never go to the school district and say, ‘Here you go, this is the service that we have for you, you need to pay for it.’ I always say, what do you need, and we will make it happen.”

As far as specific programs offered by ESDs, they range from migrant support services, to curriculum, to staffing, funding, and beyond. 

“Probably (about) 75% of (these services) are consistent across all ESDs … So there are like 25% that might be really unique to our region, or maybe to a couple of regions,” McCullough said. “An example is (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program). We run early childhood programs in quite a few districts in our region or even outside of our region. Whereas (ESD) 105, they provide more headstart programs.”

Regarding goals, all three superintendents said mental health is an area they are focusing on addressing in their district as they move forward.

“We want to grow in serving and supporting the behavioral and mental health needs of our students across all four counties. That’s definitely a goal,” Price said. “And we’re working towards how we can grow that program and those services to provide better support.”

Chase, who has been an educator of some kind for more than 40 years, reflected on what he considers the overall purpose of a service district. 

“My take on that is our overarching mission is to help school districts, families and students do better. In all kinds of things,” he said. “For us specifically, we want those kids to do well academically, but we also want them to do well personally and as individuals too. So our job is to provide services to help everybody else get better at what they do.”

    Highlighted in red is the region Educational Service District 105 serves, including 25 school districts. The yellow area is the area NCESD serves, including 29 different school districts across Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties. In pink is ESD 123 and its 23 school districts in seven different counties.