Questions & Answers with Seattle Schools’ New Ombudsman
After seeing parent complaints about Seattle public schools continue to rise, the state’s largest school system decided to take matters into its own hands. Since March, Ron McGlone has been the district’s new ombudsman, a job designed to help families navigate the bureaucracy and solve problems when they feel there’s nowhere else to turn. McGlone acts as an independent (though he is a district employee), confidential resource and reports directly to the superintendent.
McGlone, 61, has spent three decades forging ties with Seattle families, developing youth and adult programs at a Central District YMCA; boosting parent involvement, working with at-risk kids and training staff at Dearborn Park Elementary in Beacon Hill as a family support worker; and, since 2001, working in the Seattle district’s enrollment services, most recently as customer service outreach coordinator, linking with community groups and others to organize school fairs and decode the district’s complex policies.
Q: Are you a parent yourself? Have you had the experience of being a parent in the Seattle public schools?
A: The Philadelphia native (he moved to Seattle in 1980) and Vietnam veteran has a step-daughter who graduated from Rainier Beach High School in the mid 1990s, and wound up teaching in Seattle public schools for five years. McGlone also served on Dearborn Park Elementary’s PTA (not as a parent), where he launched a student-run store whose proceeds funded school field trip scholarships and annual yearbooks for families. The school PTA gave McGlone a Golden Acorn award.
Q: What makes you particularly suited to this job?
A: McGlone talks about feeling enmeshed in families’ lives—making home visits, connecting families to food banks and other services, running social skills classes—during his tenure at Dearborn Park. “I really loved being the liaison between the community and the school. People deserve our very best service. I know the community. I bring humanity to this position.”
Q: What kinds of issues are you dealing with in your new job? Did you start getting calls on your first day?
A: “I got calls before the first day!” McGlone laughs, especially from families with concerns about special education (special ed accounts for some 40 percent of Seattle parents’ complaints that wind up at the state education ombudsman’s office). “Sometimes parents just need help managing the bureaucracy. I’m here for them.”
Q: Can anyone go to you or does a parent first have to exhaust the district chain of command (teacher, principal, executive director etc.)? What if parents feel those people are not sufficiently responsive or don’t solve their problem?
A: Parents should start at the school first. (See the link below for protocol.) “A family should feel like they can approach the teacher or principal first. I want families to feel empowered to advocate for their children and do it in a way that’s respectful. No one wants to be blindsided,” McGlone says. And if a family feels like they’re not getting anywhere? “My door is always open,” he says, and he can help figure out the next step.
Q: Why wouldn’t you just get in the way of a good principal doing his or her job?
A: “I don’t want to interfere with what principals do,” McGlone says. Noting that he is known
quantity in the district (and that he plans to visit every school in the city), he says: “It’s about relationships. For me it’s a delicate balance. I don’t want them (teachers, principals, administrators) to see me as a ‘got you’ person. I want to go with you to figure out a solution. At the end of the day we all want the same thing and we’ve got to build up trust on both sides.” Facilitating and mediating are part of the job, he says, as is helping parents put situations in perspective. “Not everybody has a great day, every day. Teachers and principals are human too.”
Q: It looks like you can make recommendations, but not take direct action or force a change. Is your job just to be a good listener?
A: “Correct. I don’t want to be in a position where I say: ‘Do this.’ You really have to be able to see both sides and find the path that leads to fairness and resolution. Policy shouldn’t be a barrier, it should be a bridge. And policy doesn’t fit every situation,” McGlone says. “Absolutely, part of my job is just to be a good listener and try to find that grain of truth, even if it’s painful. My job is to be honest and open and to neutralize hostility and be the voice of reason. And sometimes the answer might be ‘no’ and you’ve got to be prepared to do that.”
Q: Why does Seattle need you to do this job?
A: “It’s really changing the culture around how we’re doing business, with good customer service and basic respect … getting back to people in a timely manner. People have not been held accountable to that. No one likes to be ignored. That’s at the root of a lot of our problems; people just can’t get through. I think families know they can’t always get everything they want. But they want someone to listen and explain,” McGlone says. “Families want to be included in any process, not excluded.”