The Baltimore County school system is still in the market for an ombudsman, or more precisely, a "board liaison."
Call it what you will, the school board hasn't been able to fill the job. Doesn't anybody want it? Isn't there enough money for the aggravation it's sure to entail?
Despite promises that he would unveil the "entire plan" for an independent confidant for parents, teachers and students last night, board President Alan Leberknight couldn't do it.
He had little to say, except that the board is still hoping to contract for the position, which would handle complaints from parents, teachers and community leaders that can't be resolved by the administration.
"We are trying to contract with an institution. We have dealt with no individuals. And we're getting very close," Mr. Leberknight said after the meeting.
Board members have been reluctant to talk about who they are considering or what they want the liaison to do.
In fact, board members other than Mr. Leberknight seemed to know little about the matter before the meeting.
"Al Leberknight has taken the lead on it," said board member Dunbar Brooks. "I'm hearing a lot of ideas from a lot of people. I'd like to put them in the mix."
Mr. Leberknight said two weeks ago that the board hoped to contract with "an outside organization," much as it would put a law firm or consultant on a retainer. "I don't see it as full-time work," he added.
One issue may be money. Mr. Leberknight said the board planned to spend "less than $15,000" for ombudsman services between now and the end of the school year in June. The board has not committed itself to the position past then.
Montgomery County, by way of contrast, has a full-time ombudsman and staff assistant to the school board who makes $89,500 a year, said Kevin Gunning, a Montgomery County schools spokesman. Baltimore schools established a full-time ombudsman more than two years ago. A school spokeswoman could not say yesterday what that position pays.
The board is pursuing the liaison on the advice of the independent task force it created last summer to investigate two issues that embroiled it in controversy -- an unpopular administrative shake-up and the transfer of hundreds of disabled students from special education centers to neighborhood schools.
The task force called for two independent ombudsmen -- one to handle parents' complaints and the other for teachers and administrators.
The board rejected the ombudsmen. But after an outcry from the public and elected officials, it agreed to hire one.
There was little reaction to last night's inaction, even from proponents of the ombudsman. "It's their thing," said Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
Liz Crosby, president of the PTA Council, said she was disappointed. "I think they need to do it soon, as soon as possible, but I think Mr. Leberknight's statement certainly said they were working on it," she said.
Perhaps overlooked is a position Superintendent Stuart Berger created when he reorganized the school administration -- the position of assistant to the superintendent for student relations/ombudsperson, occupied by former area superintendent Jessie Douglas.
"Most of my time is spent with the ombudsman part," she said, adding that she's responded to about 90 calls and letters since school opened. "People really want you to listen to them, first of all. I see people who need that extra information to get them to the right source."
The main difference, perhaps, between Ms. Douglas' job and the one recommended by the task force is that she reports to Dr. Berger and often responds to calls and letters for him. The "board liaison" would report directly to the board.