School leaders plan for adviser

Board approves proposal for ombudsman's duties

One member opposes position

System hopes new role will be filled by January

Howard County

September 26, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system is one step closer to hiring an ombudsman to field complaints and questions from parents, students and teachers.

The school board voted 4-1 last week to approve a preliminary job description with the hope of advertising the position by the middle of next month and having someone in place by Jan. 1.

Board member Sandra H. French opposed the position during a lengthy and lively discussion, saying that she and fellow board members act like an ombudsman. French also opposed having an ombudsman provide administrative support to the board, characterizing it as a "conflict of duties."

"I tried to stay open on this, but I feel we're abdicating what we were elected to do," French said at Thursday's board meeting.

The position calls for an ombudsman "to serve as a neutral party while collaborating with Howard County Public School staff and community to ensure a fair process that equitably and reasonably resolves concerns and complaints received from schools, parents and community," according to the job description.

"That is the nuts and bolts of why we [want] an ombudsman, so that there is fairness in the system," board Chairman Courtney Watson said.

Money exists in this year's operating budget to pay an ombudsman's salary from January to June because two positions have not been filled, including a director of facilities management, Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin told the board.

For the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, the school board would restructure existing positions and resources to cover the salary, Watson said, adding that an ombudsman's annual salary would be between $50,000 and $60,000.

Earlier last week, Watson and board member Joshua Kaufman visited the ombudsman for the Montgomery County school system, which has had such a position since the 1960s. Both left convinced that an ombudsman would offer a valuable service in Howard.

"There needs to be an independent voice to make sure the process is working correctly and fairly," Kaufman said.

An ombudsman would respond to the public's questions, direct the public to the appropriate office and make the public aware of the board's polices and procedures, according to the job description. The ombudsman would report findings to the board.

"At this point in time with all the difficulties we've had, and we don't have good procedures or a process in place now for interacting with parents and students, I think we should move forward," said board member James O'Donnell.

But board member Patricia S. Gordon expressed hesitation in having an ombudsman when various staff members already fulfill some of the proposed duties. Gordon suggested that the board evaluate the ombudsman's effectiveness in June, which the board agreed to do.

The board also agreed to have central office administrators look over the job description so that the duties can be refined.

A final vote is scheduled Oct. 14, when the board also will likely discuss whether an ombudsman would be a 10-month or year-round position, Watson said.

Once the process is completed, Howard would join a growing list of districts in Maryland and across the nation that have hired independent liaisons, including Baltimore, Montgomery and Queen Anne's counties.

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