In Ohio, Education Ombudsman Has Answers

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Jeffrey Jones calls himself the answer man.

That's because, as the ombudsman for the Ohio Department of Education, Mr. Jones spends a good deal of his time trying to respond to the questions and concerns of Ohio parents.

"Most of my day is spent listening and letting people know where to start," said Mr. Jones, who is usually sitting in his office at 6:30 a.m., getting organized so that he can manage the onslaught of calls--25 or 30--his office receives daily.

Before taking up residence in the year-old office of the ombudsman last month, the 34-year-old Mr. Jones worked as the HIV-prevention-education consultant for the education department for three years.

Most of his work is done over the phone, he said, making and taking calls and "trying to weave [through] the bureaucracy to get things done."

Jeffrey Jones

On Mr. Jones' agenda one recent October day: helping a parent who wanted information on whom to notify about a possible child molestation at a school; talking to parents worried about a how to make up school days because their district opened late; getting a speech therapist into an elementary school; and advising a woman looking for help with her teenage daughter who is in the 10th grade and pregnant.

Counseling and Clarifying

As ombudsman, Mr. Jones serves as a neutral third party in the resolution of education-related concerns regardless of whether they involve state or local officials. He helps identify and evaluate options for parents; provides detailed information or a direct contact to appropriate sources; and makes recommendations to school districts and the department for improving education policies.

The position of ombudsman was created about a year ago by state schools Superintendent John M. Goff. His idea was to provide an alternative channel of communication for parents and the public without undermining their access to local district officials. The first person to hold the position was Susan Reis, who left after six months on the job to teach at Pennsylvania State University.

The department encourages those with a complaint to attempt first to resolve their disputes within their school district. But if there is no resolution, Mr. Jones steps in as a mediator.

"There is a lot of clarifying of issues, counseling, and trying to appease people," Mr. Jones explained."My role is to sift through information that all sides give and find the best solution."

The Education Commission of the States and the National Conference of State Legislatures, both based in Denver, could not confirm whether other state education departments have ombudsmen.

Having an ombudsman has been "extremely helpful," said Superintendent Goff, who views the position as a means of involving the community and parents in the life of their schools. "I thought the best idea was to hire someone to build that connection," Mr. Goff said.

Since its creation last year, the ombudsman's office has worked with hundreds of parents on issues such as student discipline, special needs, curriculum, and district policies.

Ever-Changing Focus

"It is one place parents, citizens can call in and get a direct answer, or at least someone who can get back to them or find someone who can help them," Mr. Goff said."This is a positive avenue for parents."

But there are some who apparently do not fully understand the extent of Mr. Jones' power as ombudsman. A couple of weeks ago, for example, he received several calls from parents concerned about their cheerleading sponsor's "erratic driving" to competitions. The parents tried to push Mr. Jones to have the sponsor fired. He had to explain to them that terminating someone is not his job.

The most common complaints Mr. Jones has worked on of late have had to do with discipline. He has been fielding calls all month from parents whose children were suspended or expelled and didn't like how the situation was handled. Last month, the big topic was enrollment. "The job is never boring," he said. "It's one of the reasons why I love it."

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