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.

(14) comments

sofanna

FNP - I would like to know why you did not print my comments.

sofanna

FNP Thank you for editing and printing my comments!

sofanna

Let's look at the whole picture. FNP PLEASE do not ignore printing my comments as you have done in the past.

1. There are not enough teachers in the schools because their numbers were reduced several years ago and the number of students in a classroom was increased.

2. If your student is not in the top 20% of gifted and/or talented students, parents and students do not get the attention or respect they deserve. This has been an ongoing issue since 1986! Some teachers are great at helping ALL students. Some are not, nor are the counselors or Administrators. It depends on the school your child attends.

3. To get FCPS's attention, we HAD to go to the top.

4. We had to go out of County to a specialist to review our son's "testing", which FCPS misinterpreted. Having the CORRECT information and confronting FCPS, our son got a few years of a good education at FCPS.

5. Some parents cannot afford time off from work, because they don't get paid, to attend meetings with principals, teachers, special education representatives, and others, to get what their child needs . . . even if it's only a little bit of help. And, many of these children ARE very intelligent.

6. As parents, we attended EIP meetings where we were demeaned by the Principal . . . "You don't want your child to have a label for the rest of his life, do you?". And, that's a TRUE and accurate quote. My husband and I left the meeting, looked at each other and said, "What just happened?".

7. There is NO SHAME and a student should never be shamed for needing a little extra help. But, it happens.

8. Many parents just give up because as noted in the article, they are considered "complainers", even if it's a legitimate issue your child is having. Great way to start good communications.

9, 10, 11. . . My list can go on and on.

We HAD to remove our son from FCPS after 8th grade to a private school where he EXCELLED, got the needed attention, parents were respected, and he even got a scholarship for college. At our final EIP meeting, the psychologist asked me, "Why wasn't your son in the gifted and talented program at FCPS?" True statement. I responded, "You need to ask the the people you work for."

It's the students who suffer when communications fail.

Dragon314

She gets paid a $160,000 a year to say ‘ Communication is a problem’ - how about Whittier Elementary school Principal has been there 8 years because refuses to be moved ... there’s another problem

hayduke2

While I agree that communication is important, the general topic of communication concern does little to identify exactly what kinds of concerns are being lodged. Based on my experience, there are also some parents who are chronic in their complaints and criticism, won't accept any justification or answer and willfully abuse the system. I am also aware that there are individual teachers who can be "short" with their answers and ignore issues. I am also sure that some parents bypass the school, the individual teacher and administration to " go straight to the top." More detail, general examples and suggestions would be beneficial before making a generalization.

Dwasserba

Some of the best teachers I ever knew disliked dealing with parents. We're in the helicopter parent era now. We can at least acknowledge it might be like having a job that perfectly suits you except that PS you're in hell.

sevenstones1000

Yes, dwasserba, we parents can tell when our children’s teachers disdain us and wish we would go away. Guess what? These are our children. We won’t.

MD1756

I have a problem with the Ombudsman's office. I just went to their web page to try to find the report (see: https://www.frederickcountymd.gov/3702/Ombudsman-Program). Talk about a lack of communication. The report should be posted on the web page. They should count this comment as a complaint about the Ombudsman's office where they can't follow their own advise for better communication.

FCPSAdmin

Boffman is in charge of the websites and deciding what material gets posted, not the ombuds (even for her own office’s page). It’s no accident that critical information is hard to find.

MD1756

If you're a FCPS Admin, why don't you change it and make it easy to find the information without send in a FOIA, and also make sure the information I've asked for is provided in the reports?

MD1756

My mistake on the link. Here is the correct link for the ombudsman's office: https://www.fcps.org/ombuds/guiding-principles. No link or mention of the quarterly reports.

FCPSAdmin

21 complaints doesn’t sound like a lot. But people usually have to be pushed far to go to an ombuds. Most parents just resign themselves to FCPS’s shortcomings. Boffman’s attitude and response is unhelpful, but it’s also not unusual or surprising for FCPS. That’s the whole point of the ombuds’ report. Defensiveness, unwillingness to engage, no transparency around decisions. That’s the standard FCPS playbook.

MD1756

Since when is a realistic assessment a negative tone. I posted in the prior article that with what little information we are given, I agree with Daryl Boffman. Do we really need to pay someone roughly $100,000 a year to say communications is an issue? Will any organization ever please 100% of their customers? I would suggest the answer is no. Before writing an editorial like this how about doing a little more homework. Compare the results to the prior quarter. 21 complaints doesn't sound like a whole lot. If it went from 15 complaints to 21 is that a big concern? Who knows? What is the complaint per communication ratio? What if in this last quarter there were twice as many written communications or more declared snow days that the prior quarter (which would have had no complaints about the communication of snow days announcements). If someone is going to be paid roughly $100,000 a year I expect more information and more meaningful information. When writing an article I expect the FNP to be more thorough and ask the types of questions I've raised. It is not even clear what the total number of complaints were. Were the 21 referred to by Boffman the total number or just the number of communication complaints? Either way based on "“The majority focused on expectations regarding clear communication, timing of communication and perceived miscommunication,” Nail said." it can't be a large number. So again, do more research and provide more information and if its not in the report, ask Sabrina Nail why she isn't providing useful information to put the data in context and make it comparable over time.

User1

Complaints concerning communication issues. Well that’s detailed. These “complaints” can be anything from “little Johnny missed the school bus because it was early, why didn’t I get a call” to “why was school delayed in anticipation of snow”. Most of these complains aren’t even valid complaints. So as you said, without more details this is a much to do about nothing issue. FNP reporting has really gone downhill. Just sensationalized headlines.

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