Your Schools

Does Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools need a $175,000-a-year ombudsman?

In July 2012, I wrote a blog post suggesting that the arrival of a new superintendent would be a good occasion to launch an ombudsman’s office for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Five years later, CMS has a new superintendent who has named the first ombudsman in recent memory.

I can’t take credit for the idea. For one thing, a number of large to midsized districts around the country already have an ombudsman – an employee charged with acting as an independent go-between for people who have complaints or questions about the school system. Wake and Guilford, North Carolina’s other two large districts, do not.

And I suggested the post should be created by an independent agency working in partnership with CMS. One reason, I said, was that the district’s best intentions about hiring people to improve responsiveness tended to evaporate when money got tight.

I didn’t know it at the time, but after an early version of this column was posted I got an email from Paul Reinhartsen saying he actively discussed becoming a CMS ombudsman with former Superintendent Peter Gorman, who led the district from 2006 to 2011. Reinhartsen, a CMS parent and former journalist who has a law degree and experience as a mediator, says the plans fizzled when the Great Recession hit.

Apparently things have changed. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who was sworn in July 3, named former Chief of Staff Earnest Winston as ombudsman and chief of community engagement at a salary of $175,000 a year – more than $40,000 over what Winston was making in his old job. In his new role, Winston becomes an additional layer of management in a community engagement department that was budgeted for 19 employees, including an assistant superintendent, under former Superintendent Ann Clark. Winston now supervises that administrator, who supervises the newly created culinary manger’s job that was created for Jody Francisco, husband of Wilcox’s Chief of Staff Laura Francisco.

That and other new jobs, some of which weren’t advertised and/or brought large pay bumps, have sparked questions and criticism – including an issue I raised in 2012, resistance to spending public money on administrators rather than classrooms. I asked Winston, who was sent out Friday to defend the hiring of Jody Francisco, what the public can expect in exchange for a salary that’s raising eyebrows.

Many years ago, Winston and I worked together as Observer reporters. He left and became a CMS teacher, later moving into administration. For the last few years he has been the superintendent’s eyes and ears, often called on to make sure people who raise concerns and ask questions get a response.

Winston said his experiences as journalist, teacher and administrator have prepared him to help regular people navigate a system that employs 19,000 people and is governed by a Gordian knot of laws, rules and regulations. He sees himself helping parents, employees and members of the public figure out where and how to get answers, and creating a list of frequently asked questions to post online.

There’s no doubt that will be helpful. But as I told Winston, basic customer service functions could probably be handled by a mid-level staffer.

My take is that the keys to justifying a top-level job are independence, access and reach.

“Ombudsman” is a Scandinavian term that signifies someone who can be a fair arbiter between people with complaints and the organization they’re complaining about. As the University of Arizona’s ombuds program describes it, the term “is used world-wide to designate impartial, confidential and independent offices that receive inquiries and concerns from groups of people, and work to achieve fair solutions.”

Winston won’t be able to make everyone happy. But if all he does is help people figure out how the system works, he’ll fall short of that title. The question is whether he has the mandate and the authority to let Wilcox know when the system needs to change – whether that’s a policy that needs revising or a department that needs an attitude adjustment – and whether Wilcox acts on Winston’s reports.

Winston says that’s exactly what Wilcox expects. Because Winston reports directly to the superintendent, he doesn’t have to defer to department heads who may be vested in defending the status quo. He says there will be public reports on trends in questions and complaints – and presumably some closed-door talks between Winston and Wilcox about how to fix the system.

Reinhartsen says when he talked with Gorman about becoming an ombudsman, the plan was for that post to report directly to the school board, with “full authority to hear and settle disputes between students, parents, teachers and administrators.” And the job would have paid about half of what Winston is making, he said. He’s skeptical that the current structure will allow for the independence that’s needed.

Another test of Winston’s value will be his department’s ability to stand up for people who aren’t likely to call an ombudsman’s office or read an FAQ list online. Can he connect with families and community members who don’t trust the system, who aren’t wired and empowered, who may not speak English or feel comfortable in schools?

The department, which includes Spanish-speaking staff and a budget for translators, has already been working on that. “We’ll be reaching out to (homeowner associations), community groups, houses of worship, barbershops, hair salons, etc.,” Winston says.

The University of Arizona site has one more part of its description of an ombudsman: “It means a person who has an ear to the people.”

If Winston can get the voices of this sprawling and often-divided community to the ear of the superintendent, the payoff in public trust could be significant.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms