Counsel With ELAN

The Agency of Education’s lead lawyer performs con brio on and off the job

by Will Lindner

oettinger0613Attorney Mark D. Oettinger left a thriving private practice in 2006 to serve as general counsel of the Vermont Agency of Education. Among his numerous pro bono activities are his international economic development endeavors, particularly as provider for the Export Legal Assistance Network (ELAN) of the U.S. Small Business International Trade Program.

American entrepreneur and author Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) coined a saying that indicates that Mark D. Oettinger is not the first of his breed to come down the pike.

“If you want work well done,” Hubbard wrote, “select a busy man; the other kind has no time.”

Oettinger (the first syllable rhymes with “pot”) somehow finds the time that he devotes to his myriad duties and interests — which, in his case, clearly overlap.

“I have a very, very full-time job for the state,” says Oettinger, who has served as the general counsel of the Vermont Agency of Education (formerly the Vermont Department of Education) since 2006.

And that’s not mere hyperbole.

“I was there when they hired him,” says Elaine Pinkney, who is now superintendent of the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, but was deputy commissioner of education in 2006 when Oettinger replaced retiring veteran counsel Bill Ready. “Mark had giant shoes to fill. He’s had to come up to speed with Title 16 [the Vermont statutes governing education] and the ongoing legislative cycle, negotiating the changing dynamics of the department under two commissioners and the switch from being a department to being a state agency.”

That latter change took effect on Jan. 1 of this year, and, as Pinkney says, “It’s a fundamental change; it wasn’t just moving chairs around.”

As a supervisory union superintendent, Pinkney’s demands on Oettinger, and those of the other superintendents (there are 60 supervisory unions, governing 300 public schools), represent one of several, rather disjointed, areas of responsibility.

“It could be the legal rights of school boards, or parents, or the administration,” says Pinkney. “When it’s complicated and there are different interests involved, you want to know what the law says and the intention behind the law. You can always count on Mark to respond promptly.”

Oettinger’s responsibilities have a surprising breadth, because as a state agency the organization’s purview is education — systemically, but also conceptually — in Vermont.

“There are more than 300 public schools, over 100 independent schools, and roughly 2,500 home school students in Vermont,” says Oettinger. “Our degree of regulation of independent schools and home schools is less [than for public schools], but we do have a role.

“We regulate an educational system that spends about a third of the state budget — about $1.4 billion a year. We have 100,000 students and 19,000 licensed educators. My primary client is the secretary of education. I have a staff of attorneys and investigators and administrative assistants.”

Furthermore, Oettinger provides legal advice to the state board of education and represents the board when the Legislature is considering bills related to education. Then there’s the Vermont Standards Board for Professional Educators, which sets the rules about how teachers are to be licensed and trained. “Another one of my clients,” Oettinger says.

Lest these lofty policy and legislative matters divert the general counsel’s attention from why the agency even exists, there are always those calls from “the field”: administrators and teachers seeking to learn, or be reminded of, the legal parameters of their work, and parents pursuing the best interests of their children, sometimes adamantly.

“We contract with hearing officers and mediators to help schools and parents resolve disputes about special education,” says Oettinger. “These disputes can become quite protracted, and they tend to create ill will. If we can fix a situation to the satisfaction of the parties, as opposed to adjudicating it in court, the outcome for the kids is going to be far better.”

Oettinger is no stranger to the educator’s role. As adjunct faculty, he has taught business law at Champlain College and international business transactions at Vermont Law School.

This is where we glimpse his “other side”: his long-standing commitment to international business as a tool for economic development and justice in struggling parts of the world. For Oettinger — though a full- or part-time resident of Vermont since age 10 (he is now 58) — is “of the world” in a deeply personal way.

His story begins with his parents, whose lives were disrupted and shaped by World War II.

“My father was a German Jew,” he recounts. “When he was 17, in 1939, his parents arranged for him to be smuggled out of Germany to Switzerland in the trunk of a car. He was to stay in Switzerland two days, then continue through France to the U.S.”

But those two days in Switzerland turned into seven years, as the Swiss, intimidated by Hitler, clamped down on Jews entering or leaving their country. His extended stay, however, enabled the young man to meet a Swiss girl who — several years later, in Schenectady, N.Y. — became Mark Oettinger’s mother. (After spiriting their son out of Germany, Oettinger’s paternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust.)

In the United States, Oettinger’s father eventually earned a degree in mechanical engineering, while his mother became a psychiatric nurse at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Oettinger, an only child, was born in 1955. Starting in 1963, his father’s work in international public sector economic development through the United Nations and World Bank, took them to outposts around the world. Oettinger says it was Ghana, in West Africa, “where I had most of my upbringing. It was a wonderful experience, a great place to grow up.”

Still, his parents wanted their son to have roots in the States. Recalling a deeply satisfying student camp experience they had had at Allis State Park in Brookfield, they looked for property in Vermont, and when Mark was 9 they bought a house in East Barnard. The next several years, home leaves were spent in Vermont.

To Oettinger, perhaps the primary reward of those Vermont times was meeting a local girl named Rebecca Levasseur; their families grew close, and though he and Becky married other spouses originally, they finally cast their lot together at the East Barnard Church in August of 2008. (Renowned Montpelier pianist Michael Arnowitt played at their wedding, and Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley officiated.) Each brought children — five in all, now ranging from 18 to 28 years of age — to their newly merged family. Becky works in the administrative offices of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

Oettinger took two years off after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1975, joining a ski patrol and becoming an emergency medical technician — avocations he has retained to this day, spending most winter Saturdays patrolling the slopes at Bolton Valley, and instructing others in Outdoor Emergency Care since 1988.

He earned his law degree from the Albany Law School of Union University in 1980, clerked at the Vermont Supreme Court, and entered private practice in Burlington in 1982, at a firm that became Bloomberg & Oettinger when he was named a partner. During that period he developed a passion for international business as a means to promote trade opportunities to the mutual benefit of struggling economies while also encouraging fair and orderly development. He threw himself fully into this effort in 1995, leaving his Burlington firm to teach U.S. property and business law and U.S. court and trial practice on a Senior Fulbright Fellowship at Petrozavodsk State University in Vermont’s “sister state” in the Russian republic of Karelia.

His commitment to these principles has endured. Oettinger made 29 trips to Petrozavodsk between 1992 and 2011. He also helped promote the EB-5 program in its early years, which stimulates foreign investment in this country for creating jobs and has been vital to economic development projects in Jay and the rest of the Northeast Kingdom. True to the “select a busy man” theory espoused by Elbert Hubbard, Oettinger also serves, in a pro bono capacity, with ELAN, the Export Legal Assistance Network.

“It’s considered to be in the state’s best interests to generate and expand these kinds of business opportunities. The work I do is occasional triage — spotting potential legal issues, helping with referrals for Vermont companies that want to begin or expand international work, or foreign companies wanting a footprint in Vermont.”

Peter Nazarenko, of Planet Hardwood in St. George, a friend and former client of Oettinger’s, tried to start a certified–pine board business in Petrozavodsk, but found the cultural challenges (namely, corruption) insurmountable.

“To me,” he says, “Mark is the ultimate Boy Scout. Petro wouldn’t be high on anyone’s list of places to go on vacation; to go there over and over again and run into those obstacles takes an amazing amount of fortitude and positivity. Mark is that kind of guy; he has that kind of integrity.”

Oettinger’s focus on the importance of international trade carries back to his work with the state Agency of Education.

“When you see economic development on the horizon in the Northeast Kingdom,” he says, “the gift it brings is new jobs. The challenge is preparing young graduates with the skills they need to fill those jobs so the company can succeed in bringing the economic vitality to our state that we desperately need.

“We can’t do it alone, but we have a big responsibility to do our part.” •