It isn’t easy to navigate large complex organizations like the Seattle Public Schools. The district also suffers from poor customer service and an opaque, amost shadowy system that leaves parents on the outside looking in. An anecdote in this story by Times education reporter Brian M. Rosenthal best captures how parents often get what they want from the public school system either by suing or finding a way to reach someone at the top. Unfortunately, that leaves out a lot of families without the means to sue or the contact list of influential school officials.
I talked with the new ombudsman, Ronald McGlone, this afternoon. Here’s our edited and shortened conversation:
Lynne Varner: The Seattle Public Schools is always in the news but how does it feel to have the focus on you?
Ronald McGlone: It’s nice to get all of this attention from the media but I want to get back to work.
LV: Speaking of which, you started this week?
RM: I started March 1st but I helped the enrollment staff close out the open enrollment period. There is still school choice. Families have to apply to option schools and there are the remaining sibling issues out there. We processed close to 6,000 applications.
LV: So how did you get the job?
RM: For the last year, I’ve been working on this idea while studying with the Superintendent’s Initiative for Leadership Development, a program started by former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson to improve the leadership skills of principals and other middle managers.
In this district, we lack that one point-person, that go-to person who can cut throught the red tape, cut to the chase and steer families in the right direction. I talked to Deputy Superintendent Noel Treat about this and he asked me to do more research and put together a plan of action. I have to give credits to Noel and (Interim Superintendent) Susan Enfield) for having the vision to agree to my plan.
LV: What’s the 10-second elevator speech that best describes your job?
RM: I want to close that gap that exists for a lot of underserved families that don’t have the means to navigate the district. Policies should be a bridge, not a barrier.
LV: How are you going to navigate the silos and the impression that you’re trying to second-guess your colleagues?
RM: I’m going to have to rely on the experts. There is a lot that they know and they are good at what they do. But I bring a human side to the bureaucracy. I can help neutralize hostility. (Administrators) would rather have me (to deal with) than an irate customer.
LV: You can’t be a white knight every day. How will you calibrate the public’s expectations about what you can and cannot do for them?
RM: Sometimes I will have to tell people no. It will be a customer-friendly no but still be no. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t try for them, or that you don’t get back to families. I’m going to try and be honest and forthright. I think people get it; parents just don’t want to be ignored.
We want parents to be involved in the schools. We have to help them want to be involved. he shortest distance between two people is courtesy. That cuts both ways.
The customer is not always right but they are always customers.