June 17, 2009

Washington Post Conflates Ombuds Reporting Line With Neutrality

In its latest editorial on the political tug-of-war over the District of Columbia's public schools, the Washington Post has criticized plans to move the DCPS Ombuds Office from the mayor's jurisdiction to the school board.
The 2010 spending plan approved by the council gives the board a bigger budget and staff, as well as enhanced autonomy and independence. Significantly, the school ombudsman's office -- which is supposed to be a neutral, problem-solving mechanism for parents, students and staff -- would now report to the board.

When the council two years ago gave control of the schools to the mayor, it wisely sketched out a discrete role for the elected school board that did not involve it in day-to-day operations. But by having responsibility for the ombudsman, the state board would effectively have license to meddle in school matters, thus becoming a potential adversary of the mayor. (Washington Post Editorial.)

Unfortunately, the Post's Editorial Board mistakenly assumes that realignment of the DCPS Ombuds would change its function. As currently constituted, the DCPS Ombuds is a "neutral, informal, and independent resource" for school-related conflict resolution. Changing the reporting line does not change the mandate for the office. Nor would Board oversight mean that the Ombuds would acquire "license to meddle" or become an "adversary of the mayor." Moreover, either of the two reporting lines would be consistent with best practices for Organizational Ombuds, which indicate that Ombuds should report as high as possible and have access to all levels of an organization.

What is most important for the DCPS Ombuds Office is preservation of its mandate to be neutral, informal and independent. A worst-case outcome would be if the Ombuds program became tainted by perceptions of political alignment. The Washington Post's editorial only increases this risk.

Related post: Local Politics Threaten DC Schools Ombuds.

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