The Baltimore County school board last night agreed to hire an "outside liaison" to handle complaints from parents, teachers, students and other citizens who feel they can't resolve problems through regular channels.
While the board did not use the term "ombudsman," as recommended by a task force it appointed to study school problems last summer, the result appears the same.
"The board believes it has found a way to comply with the recommendation for an ombudsman that is both legal and fiscally prudent," the panel said in a statement read by President Alan M. Leberknight at the start of last night's regular meeting.
The move was a reversal for the school board, which has been under fire from unhappy parents, teachers, community leaders and elected officials since late spring. That criticism grew even louder in August when the board rejected the notion of an independent ombudsman -- even though the position was strongly recommended by a task force the board appointed to investigate problems within the system.
The board's statement last night did not spell out any details of the new position, known as "board liaison." Mr. Leberknight would say only that the board was in "ongoing negotiations" with outside parties he would not name. He said the board would unveil the full plan at its next regular meeting Oct. 26.
The statement did say its new liaison would try to resolve complaints within the system but "may well take some cases directly to the board." The liaison also will report regularly to the board about concerns it hears from the community. The liaison will serve until June, when the board will re-evaluate the position.
"It's obviously movement in the right direction," said Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
However, he criticized the board for not acting sooner. "It's hard to say how much of the chance to rebuild confidence was lost between August and September," he declared.
He said he was suspicious of the board's unwillingness to use the term "ombudsman" and said he hoped complaints handled by the new liaison would be treated confidentially. The board did not address the confidentiality issue last night.
The board also approved two other recommendations from the task force -- additional training for administrators and expansion of the Citizens' Advisory Committee on Special Education.
Much of the criticism heaped on the board over the last four months involved Superintendent Stuart Berger's demotion or transfer of 40 longtime administrators and his decision to move hundreds of disabled students from special education centers to neighborhood schools, often against their parents' wishes.
Assistant Superintendent Anthony Marchione presented a plan on teaching administrators more about evaluating the people who work for them and announced the hiring of a consultant to work on evaluation procedures.
Dr. Berger and his staff drew fire for overlooking the consistent "outstanding" evaluations of many of the principals and assistants whom they demoted. But Dr. Berger said "outstanding" evaluations weren't worth much since many people got them.
Marjorie Rofel, director of special education, announced additions to the department's citizens advisory board, including some of the special education system's harshest critics.
The board will now report directly to the school board rather than to special education administrators.
In other action, the board approved another plan for a high school magnet program -- an "academy for sports sciences" at Kenwood High on the county's east side.
Under the proposal, Kenwood will admit about 200 students who will take advanced courses in fitness, recreation and sports along with the regular curriculum.
The program is aimed at students with particular interests in sports and related occupations, such as fitness consultant, aerobics instructor, coach, sportswriter and pool manager.
Modeled after similar efforts in Philadelphia and Fern Creek, Ky., the program would begin with 9th graders in September.
Kenwood High also is one of two sites offering the International Baccalaureate magnet program for accelerated students that began in September.