East Portland has often alleged a lack of attention from both City Hall and Salem. Now Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) has made a bold new move to court that attention by hiring a lobbyist—officially called a government affairs administrator—to work for east county schools in Salem. Stacy Michaelson was chosen for the position and started this past November. She has been present at host of local events recently, including last month’s visit by Governor Kate Brown to Parkrose Middle School, to introduce herself and become more acclimated with the people and students she’ll be representing. “I think that for a long time, the superintendents in east Multnomah County have been feeling like we want to have a bigger voice in Salem,” says Parkrose Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray about the move.
“Some of us—like me—have been really active on certain legislative teams, certain issues, certain bills, that we individually supported, but we wanted to work more as a team,” says Fischer Gray, “so when we got our new ESD superintendent, Sam Breyer, we decided to go in as a group to purchase the services of a government affairs official. And that’s what we did.”
The districts that the new lobbyist will represent are Corbett, Parkrose, Centennial, David Douglas, Reynolds and Gresham-Barlow. Two of the eight districts MESD represents are not accounted for there: Riverdale and Portland. Those two districts represent the biggest and smallest of the octet and didn’t join in for completely opposite reasons. Riverdale simply couldn’t afford it, while Portland already has its own lobbyist.
Fischer Gray was resolute in rejecting the notion that there is any resentment between districts over Riverdale not paying but potentially reaping the same benefits of the rest of the group.
“Not at all,” says Fischer Gray to the question of ill feelings. “If any one of us wasn’t able to pay, we would support that district anyway. It’s just what we do. If it benefits Riverdale, we will be delighted.”
Laura Conroy, director of strategic engagement, spoke to us on behalf of both Michaelson and MESD, echoing the team-first mentality of Fischer Gray. “While each district may have some unique issues specific to them and their schools,” says Conroy, “the government affairs coordinator will focus on big-picture concerns common to all districts, such as funding and student success.”
The new position is being administrated by MESD, with each portion of the overall tab being meted out to the districts based on their average daily membership (ADM), the metric used to measure how many students they serve, as opposed to how many are enrolled or how many show up on the best or worst day. Based on 2015 to 2016 numbers, that would be a total of roughly 44,100 students between the seven districts (including Riverdale, which has an ADM of 541 for the biennium). David Douglas, Gresham-Barlow and Reynolds are the three biggest represented members and each serve similar student population sizes, with 10,646, 10,901 and 11,427 students respectively, while Centennial, Parkrose and Corbett combined serve less than 10,600 students. A full 90 percent of the total tab will be covered by the districts in proportion to their ADM, with MESD picking up the remaining 10 percent.
There’s no specific legislative piece that is currently being focused on by the new position. “What we are usually pretty interested in is making sure the legislature understands what it’s like to have 91,000 students,” says Fischer Gray, including Portland schools in that number; “Students that are very high poverty, high mobility, very high homelessness, students that have lived in a cycle of trauma—that takes a toll on a school district, and the resources that are required to take care of the social/emotional needs of our students, especially in east Multnomah County, are different than in other parts of the state. We also have a strong equity focus, and we would really like it if the legislature would understand that.”
The reason she includes Portland in that number is because their goals are similar to the goals of MESD, and their lobbyist will hopefully be working with Michaelson on future initiatives. The lobbyists are seen very much as potential partners rather than competitors. “We want her to work statewide to bolster and leverage what the other lobbyists are working on,” says Fischer Gray.
One of the biggest issues facing the schools currently in terms of funding is the current biennium being funded by the state on a straight 50/50 basis; meaning they get half the money in the first year, half in the second year, on a flat plane with no increase, as opposed to a 49/51 split, which would provide an increase in funds in the second year.
“Definitely we’re going to support any kind of revenue improvement. The state only funded us 50/50 on the state school fund. We usually get funded 49/51, so there’s a bump in the second year of the biennium. But since it’s flat, a lot of us are going to be in a lot of trouble,” says Fischer Gray, noting that contracts call for increases in salary and other benefits, so an increase in funds for the school’s administration is hugely important. “We’re not interested in entertaining any unfunded mandates. Don’t tell us to do something new and not give us any money to do it, which is ridiculous, and it’s how the legislature rolls. They like to give us things to do with no money to do them.”
Michaelson’s past experience in lobbying and government communications came from working for the Association of Oregon Counties, the Service Employees International Union, and Children First for Oregon. Her experience has been focused on health care, education and human services.
Superintendent Fischer Gray was vague in speaking of the measurable outcomes of the position, but Michaelson’s salary of $104,000 per year could prove to be a rather small investment in the long run if she can help direct attention and funds to east county schools.
“The government affairs position is evaluated based on performance related to its function and duties, which include advising the superintendents on the overall impact of policy and legislation, conducting research, monitoring legislation and influencing legislation and funding,” says Conroy, “as well as building relationships with local, state and federal elected officials to influence policy and advocate for policy positions that support learning and student achievement.” In other words, Michaelson’s success won’t be measured strictly in dollars brought into the coffers. With a major focus going toward equity issues, she’s got a broad mandate from the different school districts.
“I’ve been the one who’s been really pushy about all the equity bills,” says Fischer Gray. “The Ethnic Studies bill, the Native American Curriculum bill, the Alaskan-Native American Plan, the African American students success plan, anything to have to do with the disparities in discipline, attendance or graduation, and the fact that we need more money to make our kids successful.”
The immediate goal, according to Conroy, is to try and fix some of the “unintended consequences” of the 2017 legislative session, particularly regarding modified diplomas and “policy that helps the districts hire experienced career and technical education teachers.” And Michaelson has already hit the ground running, with excitement among the administrators involved in creating her position having never been higher. “It’s exhausting being the superintendent of a smaller district and running around to Salem all the time. I can’t do it. That’s why we needed a public affairs person, to get out there to tout the things we think are important,” says Fischer Gray. “We’ve never had that before.”