At a recent meeting activist in a West Texas town, a non-resident called for the closure of Regional Education Service Centers (ESCs) and referred to them an absolute waste of taxpayer dollars. The rationale for this claim is that ESCs compete with the private sector in providing products and services to school districts. It is perceived that service providers would still be interested in providing products and services to small, rural districts; however history does not reflect that this is accurate. It is obvious this individual has not recently been in a small or rural school district.
Products and services provided by ESCs originate when a school district makes a request for assistance. Frequently, these requests come from small districts who either cannot find the necessary resource in the private sector or they have discovered that a private vendor will not provide the service because it is not cost effective for that company. When this occurs, the ESCs step in and fill the gaps or work with area districts to form cooperative purchasing agreements that make it more economical for the private vendor to provide their services to those small districts. When I began working for the ESCs, I had no idea that this is a service they provide. Like most individuals, I assumed that ESCs just performed professional development and a few small services, and I had worked in a school district prior! These services ensure that every district has the same access to products and services that improve the learning environment for students.
In total, the ESCs partner with over 10,000 vendors for a total of approximately $900 million worth of contract business with the private sector. These are primarily through cooperative purchase agreements, shared service arrangements, and other partnerships. Arrangements with the private sector allow school districts to gain access to everything from technology support to fresh foods. For many of these arrangements the ESC serve merely as the fiscal agent and the partnership does not produce any revenue for the ESC. Without ESCs it is unlikely that districts would have access to each of these vendors and it is less likely that $900 million would be entering the Texas economy.
At the same meeting, a supporter mentioned how ESCs help smaller districts operate more efficiently by serving as their business office; however a local CPA said they did not understand why this was needed because surely the superintendent had time to perform these duties. As any educator who has worked in a small district knows, the superintendent is not just the appointed head of the school district, but the Director of Human Resources, Business Manager, cafeteria cleaner, groundskeeper, and in many cases, the bus driver. They wear a number of hats and it is not always the most efficient or cost effective process to allow them to perform each of these duties. They need someone to assist them with each of their responsibilities and ESCs are in a great position to assist with these duties. ESCs can remove the fiscal strain on already tight budgets by serving as a business office, technical support office, or other roles requested by the districts. This allows the superintendent to focus primarily on providing a successful teaching and learning environment and not on the various other functions of the district.
Additionally, I wonder if these individuals have any idea about how school districts are assisted in implementing many of the unfunded mandates they face. Whether it is training school nurses and counselors, performing safety audits, or ensuring bus drivers have the appropriate credentials to meet state standards, ESCs are there to assist districts in complying with these mandates at little to no costs. Perhaps the critics are right though. Surely the more than $830 million in savings per year to school districts that ESCs provide is not worth the $12.5 million investment.