Schools consider naming liaison

Ombudsmen who field complaints, questions gain favor across state, nation

Howard County

September 14, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

After a succession of controversies - two grade-changing scandals, false allegations of a gang rape in a high school bathroom and the ouster of the superintendent - Howard County education officials are considering the appointment of an ombudsman to field complaints and questions.

If it does so, Howard - which has the region's highest-performing public school system - will join a growing list of districts in Maryland and throughout the nation that have hired independent liaisons who can direct the public to the appropriate office, lend a sympathetic ear or help resolve complaints or concerns.

School districts in Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Paul, Minn., have hired ombudsmen, as have school boards in Baltimore and Montgomery counties.

"I really do believe this is a trend that will continue, because it allows the districts to be more responsive to the legitimate needs of stakeholders, particularly students and parents, in ways they otherwise couldn't," said Dan Rodriguez, ombudsman for the 47,000-student St. Paul school district.

School board members in Howard said having an ombudsman might have lowered the temperature of the debate during its recent disputes, which were marked by angry confrontations and blistering e-mails sent to the board by parents, teachers and others.

"My personal opinion is, if we had an ombudsman ... some of those things would not have risen to the level" they did, said Joshua Kaufman, a member of the Howard board, which agreed last month to pursue the idea with the hope of hiring an ombudsman by early next year.

Advocates say having an ombudsman, or someone serving a similar role as a community or parent liaison, infuses customer service into increasingly bureaucratic school systems, provides accountability and helps defuse problems before they escalate.

"The districts thought it would be good to have someone who could be in touch with the public, hear their complaints and [act as] sort of a liaison between the public and the school administration, and also would be involved in any disputes and try to resolve them before it blows up into something big or even a lawsuit," said Henry Duvall, a spokesman for the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's 63 largest urban public school systems.

Some school officials say existing structures provide outlets where problems or concerns can be properly addressed.

"Parents will raise questions and concerns; we respond to them individually," said Carroll County Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, who regularly meets with advisory committees. "I think parents in Carroll County have adequate ways to get their concerns resolved."

With nearly 30,000 students, Carroll is the smallest school system in the Baltimore region. Howard County has nearly 48,000 students.

Regardless of a school system's size, having an ombudsman is a useful tool, said Michael Kennedy, a school board member in the 109,000-student Baltimore County system.

"In terms of value, it gives parents and students just one more opportunity," Kennedy said. "It gives them the feeling that the system really cares and is willing to look at things from a different perspective. I think it can be very helpful."

In 1993, Baltimore County created its ombudsman post - then called a board liaison - after a recommendation by an investigative task force that looked into school system problems during Superintendent Stuart Berger's tenure.

It was a tumultuous time for the school system after Berger demoted or transferred 40 longtime administrators and moved hundreds of disabled students from special-education centers to neighborhood schools.

"We were in such turmoil here, the calls came in immediately," said Leonard Duffy, the Baltimore County schools' first ombudsman from 1993 to 1994.

Parallels exist in Howard after a year involving incidents that created much unrest: a grade-changing dispute at Oakland Mills High School involving a popular football coach; accusations that two top county school administrators abused their power by pressing for a grade change at Centennial High School; the forced resignation of Superintendent John R. O'Rourke; and false rape allegations at Mount Hebron High School.

The idea of a schools ombudsman in Howard County is not new. Former school board candidate Barry Tevelow pushed for it during the 2002 race. And last year, school board members discussed the position but voted against adding it.

Columbia parent Joanne Heckman welcomes the idea.

Heckman, who has complained about perceived flaws in the schools and has had run-ins with administrators at her son's former elementary school, said an ombudsman can satisfy a parent's need to be heard.

"An ombudsman can be an outside, independent person who doesn't report to the superintendent but is paid to advise the board and act as an advocate for parents, citizens or anyone dealing with the school system," she said.

An ombudsman's authority must be clearly spelled out to avoid an onerous process, said Deborah Wessner, president of the Howard County PTA Council.

"If we're going to have a position like this, is there capability for that person to be successful and for parents to feel like that person can make a difference?" Wessner said. "If they can't make a difference, that's another salary."

Montgomery County schools ombudsman Roland Ikheloa, who has been in the position for two years, fields phone calls and e-mails, directs people to the appropriate staff member and acts as a sounding board for concerns about grades, transportation issues and special-education placements.

Most important, Ikheloa said, his job entails "looking at what lessons have we learned from the phone calls."

The Montgomery school system, which has had an ombudsman since the late 1960s, has about 140,000 students.

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