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Keeping customers satisfied

Shulamit Finkelstein serves as school board's ombudsman,

Shulamit Finkelstein serves as school board's ombudsman,

March 08, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

If you have a complaint or problem regarding the Washington County Board of Education, then Shulamit Finkelstein, who serves as the board's ombudsman, wants you to call her.

About three or four times a week, Finkelstein, the board's executive assistant for strategic planning and board and community, is contacted with complaints or questions from a board employee, parent or citizen, she said.

Finkelstein, 59, said she spends about 15 percent of her work time as the ombudsman. Her other duties include coordination of strategic planning and development of the school system's Master Plan.

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The program was started in the fall of 2001 at the suggestion of then-Interim Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan.

Finkelstein became the system's ombudsman after the first ombudsman, John Hull, a longtime school system employee, retired in the summer of 2002, Finkelstein said.

She served in a similar capacity, although with a different title, for seven years in Baltimore City Public Schools.

Morgan and Finkelstein worked together in the Baltimore school system and both started working in Washington County schools in the summer of 2001.

Morgan suggested creation of the ombudsman program in order to "improve communications with stakeholders and have improved customer satisfaction," Finkelstein said. Every county citizen, regardless of whether they have children in the school system, are considered "stakeholders," she said.

As ombudsman, she responds to complaints and problems. Board employees refer people with problems to her, she said.

She promises people confidentiality in order to assuage their concerns about retaliation and retribution, she said. She promises that she will remain impartial and not take sides, she said.

"We don't want people to be discouraged to speak up," Finkelstein said.

However, not every problem has a solution, she said.

"We can't guarantee that it will be resolved to their satisfaction, but we do our best," she said.

For example, if a parent calls and is upset about a school policy, she will suggest the person become a school volunteer and try to get on the school's School Improvement Team, she said. Then the policy can be brought up as an issue and possibly changed, she said.

The number of complaints is higher at the start of the school year as parents call about transportation problems, like student busing, she said.

The majority of calls and complaints come from parents, she said. But she also gets school employees calling to complain about other employees, she said.

Not all of the calls are complaints - some are people looking for help or information, she said. She helps them navigate through the school system and get in touch with the right person. Other times she may be asked to help a person find out more about how to respond to a possible abused or neglected child, she said.

While some might find the work discouraging, she said she enjoys it.

"I see it as enhancing communications, answering doubts and uncertainties," Finkelstein said, "and trying to make sure the school system is working for people."

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