Tuesday, October 29, 2002


Ballot-marking recommendations for E.S.U. #3 Board (voters in all school districts in the greater Omaha area besides OPS, including Westside, Millard, Papillion-LaVista, Ralston, Bellevue, Elkhorn, and 13 smaller ones):

1. Vote for Alan F. Moore, an incumbent from Bellevue who has done a good job, has a lot of horse sense, and has an MBA from UNO among his credentials.

2. Vote for Ron Erlbacher, an educator for nearly 30 years (currently director of student services at a local community college) who . . . gasp! . . . is brave and honest enough to state that the “C” word – consolidation – might be a good idea for Nebraska’s 18 ESU’s.

Don’t use your other two votes in order to get these two on that board.

And then . . .

3. Start advocating for the abolition of the ESU’s in Nebraska, or, at a minimum, consolidating the 18 of them down to one each for Nebraska’s three congressional districts. Either way, we need to ban the collection and storage of individual student records outside the individual school walls, such as in an ESU databank.

We would save a whopping amount of money, and might be able to head off some bad things that I think are in store for the ESU’s. I’m talking about shifts in funding and operations associated with the continuing nationalization of public schools. These include what’s happening with the No Child Left Behind federal education law and the nationalized assessments coming our way that threaten to ruin what’s left of local control. I think the ESUs are poised to become the databanks here for a nationalized system.

If we “off” Nebraska’s ESU’s now and disperse their assets, or at least keep them out of the student-record processing business, the feds would have a lot harder time taking over our schools -- which they don’t even call “schools” any more. They call them “local education agencies.”


A little history: ESU’s began in Nebraska in 1965 as a way for school districts to collaborate on such costly but specialized items as special education, inservice training, and technology infrastructure. Funding comes from federal, state and local tax sources. The idea was to collaborate to save money and hold the line on school-district staffing.

Ironically, look what has happened to school spending and staffing since then. According to the Nebraska Blue Book, in 1960 there were 13,316 teachers for 337,365 schoolchildren. By 2000-01, there were 20,785 teachers for FEWER kids, 329,445.

Hold the line, eh?

ESU’s have their own staffs, of course. Each of the 18 ESU’s in Nebraska also has an elected board. They do not draw salaries, but they do have expense accounts. More about that later.

Remember, computerization was like an old sci-fi movie in those days. Special ed was just getting started. A lot of the exciting things that only a collaboration like an ESU could do, then, are now being done routinely by districts, or should be, because of the advancements of ed-tech over the past nearly 40 years.

But the ESU’s have become sort of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind honey pot for educators. Even though taxes flow into them, they don’t have anywhere near the visibility of public school districts. Their accountability ratio as far as Joe and Joan Q. Public is concerned is almost zero.

But we’re talking big bucks here. ESU #3 spent $18,992,811 last fiscal year, about one-third of it from federal tax sources, plus a few million each in state-aid taxes and local property taxes.

You can visit their website at www.esu3.org for more on what they do. You can see their directors, all middle-aged white men; the ESU board is apparently a “perk” for retired school administrators, who get together to play golf and go on junkets ostensibly to learn amazing education facts that they couldn’t POSSIBLY get by reading a book in their own homes, but instead must obtain at those meccas of educational wisdom, LaJolla, Padre and Key West. Just kidding: but going on trips is a big part of board activities.

You also can get their budget information from the great online databanks prepared by State Auditor Kate Witek and staff at http://auditors.nol.org

I first became aware of ESU #3 a few years ago when I was president of our middle-school parents’ group. I asked our school office for a printout of all the kids enrolled in order to produce a student directory. I was told I had to get that information from the ESU. I thought that was pretty odd, considering that enrollment data would seem to be in the job description of school office staff.

But oh, well. I drove up to the ESU #3 complex, and literally gasped. Its stupendous building and grounds at 6949 S. 110th St., looks like a penitentiary for zillionaires.

As I walked inside the brand-new, high-class building, I marveled that you could shoot a cannon down the spacious halls and offices and not hit anybody. They’re that spacious. I couldn’t help comparing that to the halls of our public schools, where backpack-laden kids have to step sideways to get from class to class, and they’re sitting on the floors in study hall in some schools.

That day at the ESU, a whole lot of teachers were there, attending an all-day inservice on multiculturalism. It had a lavish display that went on for miles of some of the dumbest curriculum and “fun learning activities” you ever saw. Of course, I peeked: my tax dollars at work showing teachers how to skip math instruction and instead have each kid make 1,000 origami cranes to send to the Hiroshima Memorial in Japan because it was all OUR fault they got nuked . . . NOT!

Anyway, the large turnout of teachers made me wonder . . . who was back in their classrooms, caring and sharing and folding origami cranes with our children? Subs, of course: another double-dip day into the public trough, paying the regular teacher not to teach and the sub to take her place, compliments of today’s progressive education philosophy. Sigh.

All I wanted was a copy of the ESU budget. I was sent hither and yon to get it. I finally reached the right office, the swankest of the swank. Instead of the report, for a few minutes, I got the third degree. I think they might have even shined a high-powered lightbulb in my face, and believe me, it would have been the best wattage money could buy. “Who are you? Why do you want this information? What are you going to do with it?”

I felt as though I’d wandered into a private club, only instead of dancing girls, the floor show was an Educational Spendorama: unencumbered, unaccountable, undecipherable expenditures . . . but this show was different.

It was all taking place offstage.

People know nothing about ESU’s, and yet their budgets are bigger than most taxing authorities in the state.

Maybe there are good reasons the education bureaucrats don’t say much about the ESU’s. Maybe nobody knows anything about them because they’re an example of another idea in public education that might have made sense at the time it got started, and even though times have changed and it doesn’t make much sense anymore, it’s still there, sucking up cash from the poor, beleaguered, unsuspecting taxpayer.

They’ll let me have it for this. I know. If this is a bureaucratic boondoggle, it’s our fault for putting up with it. I’ve been a terrible watchdog. I’ve never shown my ugly mug at an ESU board. Mea culpa. But neither has anybody else, I expect . . . who didn’t have a hand out to get some money instead urging them to hold the line.

I’m sure many ESU employees do good work, especially those in greater Nebraska, who really do have to consolidate and share and drive inconvenient distances in order to make a go of it – just barely – in this cold, cruel world of declining enrollment in the rural areas.

But . . . there are many ways to skin a cat . . . and . . .

The ESU’s have to go, or at least be consolidated ‘way down to three instead of 18, and transfer and reduce or eliminate their functions, for the simple reason that we can’t afford this anymore . . . this notion that you can spend millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars with little or no public awareness or accountability.

I mean, down at the Omaha City Council meetings, people are MUD-WRESTLING over $2,000 decisions with reporters and cameras crawling all over every dime spent . . . and yet here’s little old ESU #3 in its gigantic building, spending nearly $19 million, sight unseen.

Well, it’s time we saw some things. For instance:

ESU #3 directors turned in $153,121 in reimbursement requests for travel, lodging, meals, conferences, rental cars, airline tickets and mileage claims in the fiscal year 2000-01. That’s according to State Auditor Kate Witek’s http://auditors.nol.org site. Read all about it, and weep. Some of the other ESU’s spent even more in this category: $170,471 in ESU #16, $163,204 in E.S.U. #9, and the grand champion, $248,954 in E.S.U. #10.

Think what that money could have bought for kids.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or it’s fraudulent or anything like that.

I am saying we can consolidate those boards into three instead of 18. And we can . . . and should . . . do a lot better job for both the kids and taxpayers who are supposed to be served.

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