The benefits of an ombudsman

November 22, 1993

One liaison isn't going to win over all the critics of the Stuart Berger-led school system in Baltimore County. But the appointment of Towson business consultant Leonard Duffy as independent liaison is good medicine for a system that has sorely needed a dose of smart public relations.

The county Board of Education was reluctant to prescribe the move when it was recommended 2 1/2 months ago by a board-appointed task force. The board members might have been technically correct in arguing that the duties of an ombudsman or liaison between themselves and the public are already served by various committees and other individuals. The reality, however, was that the county's education officials had to do something to show they weren't oblivious -- or, worse, callous -- to the concerns of parents, teachers and others with valid objections to school policies.

Contrary to what some cynics might say, the new liaison is more than just a political sop. The post has promise to create more benefits than many people might expect.

For one thing, critics have the opportunity to vent their angry feelings to a largely objective person with the board's ear.

What's more, the school system stands to benefit from helpful suggestions and tips offered in calls and letters to Mr. Duffy. Anything from a facility flaw to a potential disaster such as the Ronald W. Price school sex scandal that festered for years in neighboring Anne Arundel County could be remedied quickly with a liaison who has the public's trust.

Many companies, including The Baltimore Sun, hire ombudsmen take calls and letters from customers. Many times, the callers have complaints to level; sometimes, they just want information. Most seem to derive satisfaction just from making human contact with an institution that otherwise would seem faceless and aloof.

The new ombudsman for the Baltimore County schools, Mr. Duffy, is a school system alumnus with children in the system. He is in an ideal position to help the local school board appear more consumer-friendly.

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To reach the county school board liaison, call (410) 832-5446 or write him at Box 20216, Baltimore 21284-0216. Mr. Duffy is taking calls two hours a day, five days a week. When he isn't on duty, an answering machine will record messages.

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