School board begins search for ombudsman

Members OK description of position in a 4-1 vote

`A bad precedent,' dissenter says

System joins counterparts in adding outside liaison

October 15, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Wanted: Someone to field school questions and complaints from Howard County parents and help resolve problems in an equitable and fair manner.

The Howard school board is looking for an ombudsman after yesterday's 4-1 vote approving a job description to go out immediately. Board members hope to fill the position for the nearly 48,000-student school system by Jan. 1.

Board member Sandra H. French cast the lone dissenting vote, saying the proposal "sets a bad precedent" by creating a new position outside of the normal budget process.

But the region's highest-performing school system joins a growing list of districts in Maryland and throughout the nation turning to an independent liaison who can help direct the public to the appropriate office and identify issues or concerns from the community. The school systems of Montgomery, Queen Anne's and Baltimore counties have ombudsmen.

Some board members have said such a person could have helped during the system's controversies during the past school year, including allegations of grade-tampering at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools.

While acknowledging French's argument, board member Patricia S. Gordon said an ombudsman would be valuable to the community.

The ombudsman's annual salary would range between $54,000 and $97,000, depending on experience. The school board, which would hire the person, is looking for an ombudsman with knowledge of the school system's policies and procedures, community outreach experience and skills in problem-solving within large organizations.

An ombudsman's duties include responding to questions, making the public aware of the board's policies and reviewing board procedures and regulations. The person would report to the board.

Money in this year's operating budget would pay for an ombudsman's salary from January to June because two positions -- including director of facilities management -- have not been filled, school officials said. When the new fiscal year begins July 1, the school board plans to restructure existing positions and resources to cover the salary.

French had questioned whether the ombudsman's administrative duties would pose a conflict. But board attorney Judith S. Bresler said she did not see a problem between the ombudsman's main role as a problem-solver and that of providing administrative support to the school board.

But Bresler advised the board to adopt a policy outlining an ombudsman's duties and responsibilities. The board authorized Bresler to draft such a policy, and a public hearing will be scheduled before it is adopted.

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