(TORONTO – September 6, 2016) - As the new school year begins, the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman is marking one year of oversight of school boards, after receiving 701 complaints and inquiries in the first year of its new mandate.
‘‘I’m happy to report that so far, we have received excellent co-operation from most boards, which has allowed us to resolve many difficult issues without formal investigation,’’ said Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé. ‘‘We have been able to help hundreds of people by referring them to the right officials at the local level, or by having our staff make informal inquiries with the boards in question.’’
The Ombudsman’s jurisdiction over the province’s 82 school boards and school authorities came into effect on September 1, 2015, after the passage of Bill 8, the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, in December 2014. Most school board complaints – about 85% – have been resolved and closed, and no formal investigations have been launched to date.
However, interventions and inquiries by Ombudsman staff resulted in numerous constructive changes to school board processes, for the benefit of many stakeholders, Mr. Dubé pointed out. “When we help fix a problem for one person, but also ensure others don’t encounter it in the future, that’s what an Ombudsman office does best,” he said.
About one-third of cases were resolved by Ombudsman staff providing simple referrals or information to the appropriate school or board officials. The Ombudsman’s office seeks to resolve issues at the local level wherever possible, and recommends all school boards have clear internal complaint procedures.
The most common topics of complaints were student safety and security, special education, school and board staff, and busing. Some examples of cases (details are anonymized to protect the confidentiality of complainants):
When a four-year-old boy was dropped off at the wrong bus stop (he was returned to school by a concerned passerby, but his family did not know where he was for 45 minutes), Ombudsman investigators made informal inquiries with the board and its transportation consortium. The consortium confirmed it was a case of driver error and committed to improving its incident reporting procedures and training.
After a 13-year-old student’s mother complained that a teacher had spent more than two hours questioning the girl over a classroom incident, Ombudsman staff determined that the school board did not have policies to deal with such issues. The board sent the mother a letter of apology for the teacher’s actions and its superintendent recognized the need for guidelines for handling similar incidents in future.
In reviewing a case where a woman tried to make a conflict-of-interest complaint about two school board trustees, Ombudsman staff discovered the board’s process was only designed to handle complaints from trustees, not the public. The board was asked to establish a clear process for public complaints.
To explain the Ombudsman’s new mandate and build positive working relationships with stakeholders, Mr. Dubé and other senior staff have conducted extensive outreach in the past year, including addressing several gatherings of educators and board officials, and creating a webinar outlining how school board complaints are handled.
More information about these and other complaints – including a breakdown of complaints received by school board – will be released in the Ombudsman’s 2015-2016 annual report this fall.
The Ombudsman’s office also takes complaints about universities, colleges and the Ontario Student Assistance Program, and other programs within the provincial ministries of Education and Training, Colleges and Universities. Complaints can be filed online at www.ombudsman.on.ca, by phone (1-800-263-1830) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
An independent office of the Ontario legislature, the Ombudsman receives more than 20,000 public complaints per year, and resolves and investigates individual and systemic issues relating to more than 1,000 public sector entities, including provincial government bodies, municipalities, universities and school boards. Although the Ombudsman’s recommendations are not binding, almost all have been accepted by government over the past decade, resulting in major systemic reforms. Most recently, the province committed to implement the Ombudsman’s 22 recommendations to improve how police are trained to de-escalate conflict, and 60 recommendations to help adults with developmental disabilities who are in crisis.