Loss of Public Education Ombudsman May be an Issue in Washington, DC School Board Election

The election of school board members in Washington, DC has returned attention to the public schools Ombuds Office that was shuttered in August 2009. Some school officials and activists say restoring the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education is a crucial aspect of reform implementation for the next school board.

In October 2007, DC Mayor Adrian M. Fenty appointed Tonya Vidal Kinlow as the first Ombuds for public education. Under her leadership, the Ombuds program hired three staff members and handled thousands of inquiries. Kinlow left the post abruptly after 14 months amid praise for hard work but complaints about delayed reports. By the summer of 2009 Ombuds office had political pawn in a budget battle between DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and the District Council. In September 2009, the office was closed, ostensibly to help balance a $400 million budget shortfall for the 2009-10 school year.

Now, the Washington Times is reporting that insiders believe progress on school reform depends on engaging parents which depends in turn on reinstating the Office of the Ombudsman.
"We need to bring back the office of the schools ombudsman," said Ward 5 board member Mark Jones. * * *

"I think it's very important to have an ombudsman," [Ward 2 board member
Mary] Lord said. "There is no portal for parents and community leaders and nonprofits to raise concerns. An ombudsman is an advocate for folks who don't know where to go or take the next step."

But an ombudsman should not "carry the water" for politicians, she added. "It should be a neutral forum."

Mr. Jones, who is up for re-election to the school board, agreed, saying
an independent ombudsman would motivate and empower parents.

If the DC Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education is restored, it must be granted some political protection so that it is perceived as independent and neutral, and has sufficient time to gain the trust of stakeholders.

Previously posted on The Ombuds Blog.

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