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Willamette ESD mess stinks on so many levels
[November 23, 2005]

Willamette ESD mess stinks on so many levels

(Statesman Journal)State officials must step in to take control of the situation



The Willamette Education Service District is a mess - a rotten, stinking mess. State and federal investigators should be crawling all over it, rooting out evidence and filing legal and ethics charges.

Stories in Thursday's and Friday's Statesman Journal revealed a WESD management that allowed widespread violations in the migrant-education program - and then rewarded them.

The WESD's own investigation found a roster of abuses by former migrant-education director Nicolasa Mohs and her program: Hiring of family members. Severe problems in the food services. Applying for outside jobs on ESD time. Outlandish requests for reimbursements, including for alcohol. Retaliation against employees and violations of worker laws and district policies. Lack of accountability for grant money. And on and on.

About the only people who seemed to have a handle on the situation were the leaders of area school districts who refused to do business with Mohs.

If these allegations were true, they should have gotten Mohs fired and strung up before the state ethics and teacher-licensing commissions. Firing was the recommendation of Assistant Superintendent Dave Novotney, who conducted the investigation.

Instead, WESD Superintendent Maureen Casey settled with Mohs, after Mohs filed a civil-rights complaint. The Statesman Journal's review of the documents found that Mohs was rehired as an independent contractor at her old salary, plus additional payments, in return for dropping the complaint.

That's unconscionable, but it gets even worse. The documents show that Mohs was promised a positive letter of reference, that the problems would not be disclosed to potential employers and that the results of the internal investigation would not be reported to state regulatory commissions.

If that's the case, neither Mohs nor Casey deserves to work in education one more day. The WESD board should get rid of them, along with any other staff members who allowed these problems to fester.

The board also owes the public a prompt accounting of what happened and why.

School boards are charged with protecting the public's interests. Where was the WESD board during all this? Either asleep, being manipulated by the district administration or both. Board member Jolene Garland resigned last week, saying in part it was because the board lacked any real say in district operations.

Board members said that they first learned of the civil-rights complaint during a closed-door meeting, which was of dubious legality. Casey, they said, did not tell them about the investigation report, the settlement agreement or the consultant contract until after the Statesman Journal started asking questions.

These tawdry dealings should send shockwaves through the state educational establishment. They are one more indicator that the 2007 Legislature should have the guts to either eliminate education service districts or put them under tighter control.

This case also calls into question the role of school boards and the accuracy of job recommendations. How many other school boards in Oregon are so trusting and unquestioning of their administrators that they lack an accurate picture of what's going on? How many problem educators are passed along from one district to another with glowing recommendations instead of being barred from the profession?

Under a 2005 change in state law, WESD board members now will be chosen by school districts instead of voters. That can't come soon enough.

Until then, state officials should exercise whatever emergency powers are available to take control of the Willamette ESD and clean up this mess.

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