The office that helps parents and others navigate the complexities of Frederick County Public Schools made its quarterly report to the school board recently, and it identified communication as a problem.
Unfortunately, the first reaction from the school administration was less than helpful — and actually illustrated an attitude that may be part of the communication problem.
The Office of the Ombuds was created last year to help parents when they need to interact with the school system. Like any large bureaucracy, FCPS can be intimidating to those who do not understand its organization and its jargon.
The board appointed Sabrina Nail as ombuds to be a neutral party who can provide information and assistance.
In her second quarterly report, Nail said that a majority of concerns brought to the office between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019, related to communication.
“The majority focused on expectations regarding clear communication, timing of communication and perceived miscommunication,” Nail said.
“Visitors struggled with difficulties ranging from a perceived negative tone both verbal and via email, confusing or insufficient communication and ... concerns regarding the timing of communication,” she said. The reaction from school staff? Defensive. Very defensive. We perceive a negative tone, even.
Daryl Boffman, executive director of public affairs for FCPS, said that with such a large school system, he is unsure if the number of complaints means communication is a major problem.
“FCPS strives to address each issue with care and consideration,” Boffman told News-Post reporter Katryna Perera. “However, I disagree with categorizing 21 varying complaints across a system of 44,000 students and 6,000 employees over a three-month period as a ‘big trend.’”
We have to say, that is a problem. There is little point in having an ombuds office if the staff is going to go into a defensive crouch at the first sign of criticism.
We were relieved therefore that board members, at least, were willing to listen to the criticism and agree that the issue needs to be addressed.
Board Vice President Jay Mason’s comments stood out. He said he knows what parents who complained were talking about, and he recounted his own experiences as a parent.
“Before I became a board member, I’d get a response and it made me more mad and I felt that sometimes ... we kind of give a nonchalant answer,” Mason said. “And that kind of sets parents off in the wrong direction. They feel like we don’t care.”
That goes to the heart of communication problems in any organization. If your customers think you don’t care, you have trouble.
Boffman said his department will revamp its guide to communication style for the central office. And Nail suggested developing a standard for customer service that could be used at all levels of the school system, including principals and teachers.
But if your chief communications manager says he doesn’t think it’s much of a problem, that will be the message his staff will hear and take to heart.
Listening, after all, is perhaps the most important of communication skills. Discounting what you’re told sounds like you’re OK with the status quo. That’s not only not helpful, but it completely undermines the point of having an ombuds.
The school system can and must do better. It can start by not being so dismissive of what it’s being told.