Schools urged to create post of ombudsman


Former school board candidate Barry Tevelow says the Howard County public school system could have avoided a slew of troubles if only it had an ombudsman like Montgomery County's - and he is willing to take on the job.

"It is too easy for any large institution to ignore problems unless they become public relations problems," Tevelow said. An ombudsman, basically a mediator, would ensure that issues between citizens and school representatives don't fall through the cracks, he said.

Tevelow points to redistricting questions that left some parents feeling ignored. He also said weaknesses identified in a $250,000 audit report from 2001 - lack of cohesion, vision, leadership and adequate community involvement - could have been recognized and repaired long ago if there were an independent insider paying attention.

But the Board of Education says it already fills the ombudsman role.

"We are in a sense the liaisons between the community and the school system," said Sandra H. French, the board chairman. "We're supposed to use the information we gain in talking with the public to make education decisions after weighing both the administration and the public's concerns."

Montgomery County's school system has had an ombudsman since the late 1960s, said Roland Ikheloa, who has been in the position for the past year and a half.

"When the school system began to grow, so did the need for the board to have a link to the community and a way of gauging the pulse of the community," Ikheloa said.

Patricia O'Neill, Montgomery's school board president, said Ikheloa is invaluable.

"We're now approaching 140,000 students, and though I like to think all of the staff is responsive to parents, sometimes it's a bureaucratic maze to negotiate through," she said.

Ikheloa helps direct traffic, sending callers with questions in the right direction, O'Neill said, and he provides a sympathetic ear to parents who "just need someone they can vent with and feel no chance of retribution against their child."

But Ikheloa said his biggest impact is in changing practices.

"I take the data I've gotten from all of these calls and e-mails and walk-ins and try to make sense of them," he said. He then reports his findings annually to the board, which often uses them as a basis for systemic change.

Ikheloa's is a paid position, but Tevelow wants a volunteer to take on the same duties in Howard County to keep costs down, a suggestion that caused Ikheloa to sputter.

"After a year, they'd sue for payment," he said, laughing.

Montgomery County has 139,000 students, and Ikheloa said it is easy to get overwhelmed by parents' concerns.

Board members in Howard County, which has about 47,000 students, know this well.

French said she easily spends 15 to 20 hours a week tracking down answers to parental inquiries, and last weekend newest board member Courtney Watson replied to 56 e-mails.

"The board is the liaison with the community," said Watson, who noted she would withhold her thoughts on the ombudsman idea until she has had time to study the proposal.

"But I do recognize that we can always do a better job of interacting with the community and helping them find the proper channels for their concerns," she said.

When Cheryl Wilhelm, a Talbott Springs Elementary parent, saw a disproportionate number of low-income students being redistricted to her school, she did not hesitate to contact school system representatives. She said she got results with little hassle.

"I'm not really sure [an ombudsman] would add anything to what an individual in the community can already do," Wilhelm said.

She questions whether truly objective people could be found, pointing out that many factors, such as to whom they would report, where they are from and what their agendas might be, could influence their decisions.

"I'm not saying it's a bad idea," she said. "I'm just not going to jump up and yell that's great."

Though no one in the school system has seriously looked into the plan yet, Tevelow said he is willing to volunteer on a trial basis to show the potential benefit.

"I think the cost savings would show itself very quickly," he said, "and it may serve the citizens of Howard County well to have a professional fill the position on a permanent basis."

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