Advocating for the Proper Role of an Ombudsman

Cartoon for Extra Credit Nov. 1, 2007.
Cartoon for Extra Credit Nov. 1, 2007. (By Julie Zhu/montgomery Blair High School)
Thursday, November 1, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

This is in response to your Oct. 11 column ["Test Prep Firms and the Laws of Attraction"] in which you solicited input from parents who have dealt with the Montgomery County public schools ombudsman.

My family recently returned to our home in Bethesda after three years overseas. My son was slated to attend Pyle Middle School, but we wanted to get him into Westland Middle School, which has an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program. The IB program is designed to provide a consistent educational path for internationally mobile students, such as my son. We hoped to get him on the IB track as another foreign assignment might be in our future.

When I e-mailed the MCPS office responsible for school placement last summer, they explained that they accept requests only from students currently registered in the district and that such requests are considered only in March for placements in the following school year. When I explained our circumstances, they said I should first register my son in Pyle and then contact them about a transfer to Westland. They said they would consider an out-of-cycle review of the transfer request but only once my son was registered and attending Pyle.

This seemed to me to defeat the purpose of the request, which was to try to minimize disruptions to my son's educational path. It made no sense to me to put him in Pyle and then switch him to Westland a couple of months into the school year. They had set up a classic Catch-22 situation.

After a few weeks of e-mails with the placement office, I finally wrote the ombudsman's office pointing out the Catch-22 and asking them to support my request for a decision before my son started school. The answer was curt, if polite. A representative of the ombudsman said after a consultation with the placement office, it was determined that all procedures had been followed correctly. I was told to direct further communications to the placement office.

But if all an ombudsman is going to do is check whether the rules have been followed, then it's time to change their name to the office of the inspector general. To my mind, an ombudsman should be an advocate for parties from outside the system, in this case students and their families. An ombudsman should be able to look beyond the rulebook to see whether the higher mission of the organization is being met. That might mean asking routine-bound bureaucrats to bend the rules once in a while, in cases where the rules conflict with the organization's goals and responsibilities to its clients. My brief encounter with the MCPS ombudsman's office suggests that is not happening.

Colin Helmer


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company