Community devotion earns Oregon School Board Member of the Year recognition
Merle Comfort was named the Oregon School Board Member of the Year on Saturday at OSBA’s 73rd Annual Convention. Comfort serves on the La Grande and InterMountain Education Service District school boards. (Photo by Moriah Ratner, Blue Chalk Media)
Merle Comfort, the 2019 Oregon School Board Member of the Year, started on the La Grande School Board in 1991, just as property tax changes began to chip away at school funding.
Comfort looks forward to seeing some of that rebuilt with the Student Success Act.
“The Student Success Act just basically brings us back to where we should have been all these years,” he said.
Comfort, who is on the InterMountain Education Service District board as well as chairing the La Grande board, was honored Saturday at OSBA's 73rd Annual Convention in Portland.
“Here is a person who gives a huge amount of time and energy and is totally dedicated to the welfare of his district’s kids,” said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green. He added that Comfort exemplifies what it means to be a school board member.
OSBA launched the award in 2018 to recognize outstanding volunteers who make a difference in their communities. The award comes with free registration to OSBA events for a year and the recipient’s name on a plaque in the Salem OSBA office.
Nomination materials for Comfort stressed his community devotion, his depth of knowledge, his effective leadership and his steadfast commitment to serving students.
“Merle epitomizes what a strong education leader is for rural Oregon,” said InterMountain Superintendent Mark Mulvihill.
He said Comfort can filter high-level conversations into action items that the group can move on while his tremendous sense of humor greases the wheels.
Comfort said he started on the school board because he wanted students to have as good an education as he had. With the 1990s property tax reforms, he saw school funding cuts result in programs, classes, staffing and opportunities being whittled away.
“Everyone suffered, not just kids,” he said. But he quickly added that La Grande students still received a quality education — it just could have been better.
He said the Student Success Act offers a chance to bring some things back. The act will send roughly $500 million a year to school districts through grants. Comfort said schools need to spend the money wisely so legislators or voters don’t yank it away.
Comfort moved to La Grande in 1979. He is a certified dental technician at Comfort Dental Lab, where he still works for his parents, Herb and Cora, and with his brother, David. He said having his parents as his bosses has made it easier to fit in the demands of school board work. His wife, Deanna, also provided much-needed support.
Colleagues praised Comfort’s community involvement.
“If you think of service, or service-minded, that’s Merle,” said La Grande Superintendent George Mendoza. “The gentleman just helps people and serves the community.”
Mendoza treasures his working relationship with Comfort and values Comfort’s long experience. Mendoza said he leans on Comfort’s understanding of rules, policies and community culture and his historical perspective.
“He is extremely knowledgeable, that’s the first thing I would say,” said La Grande board member Joe Justice. He said Comfort is solution-oriented and trusted by the community.
InterMountain Board Chair Kelly Bissinger said Comfort’s personal connections and long service are an invaluable asset for regional work.
Comfort volunteers on all sorts of community boards and projects, and he helps out with athletic events at the high school and Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.
He started school board service before his only child, Denise Comfort, was born in 1994. Comfort planned to have children, and he wanted to make sure the schools were as good as they could be.
Comfort has served La Grande from 1991 to 1999 and again from 2007 to the present. He has been on the InterMountain board since the ESD was created in 2011.
Comfort’s daughter graduated from high school in 2013, but he has kept going. He said he stayed on to help the district pass its first bond in decades in 2014. Then he stayed on to see the projects through.
Colleagues credit Comfort for his leadership during the bond process, and he called it one of his proudest accomplishments.
“Until it passed, you have hopes and dreams,” he said. “When it passes, you see some of those hopes and dreams come to fruition.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA