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School Board votes to shutter Ombudsman

It appears it was taken out as quickly as it was brought in.

The McDuffie County School Board voted last Thursday night to close the alternative school they brought in at the beginning of the school year. In a 5-1 vote, the board approved not renewing the contract with Ombudsman Alternative school program, offered through Educational Services of America.

The Ombudsman program was introduced to last year's McDuffie County school board by then-Chairwoman Virginia Bradshaw after she heard of it from a school board member of another system while chit chatting during a Georgia School Boards Association convention. The program was unanimously approved by the McDuffie School Board last April after they voted to close the CrossRoads Learning Center, which was McDuffie's alternative school program for many years, after CRLC Principal Steve Strouble announced his retirement two months earlier.

The decision to bring in Ombudsman was made quickly in order to have time for Ombudsman to set up shop by the first day of school. They missed the deadline and the students had to have school in the Central Offices of the school system for a couple of days until a certificate of occupancy was approved by the State Fire Marshall.

In January, school board members asked Superintendent Petersen if they could have an update on how Ombudsman was doing. In February, John Wacha, the assistant vice president for center operations of Ombudsman, made a presentation to the board. At that time, the board asked Mr. Wacha many questions and reported complaints that they had heard. The board members also asked school principals their opinions at that meeting, and received some complaints of lack of communication between the schools and the program. At that time, Assistant Superintendent Barry O'Neill told the board that the complaints were not new or unique to Ombudsman.

Also at that time, Mr. Wacha told the board that the Thomson Ombudsman Center had an 82 percent attendance rate. Academically, after one semester, the students in the Thomson center had increased an average of over two grade levels in language mechanics, spelling and vocabulary, and one grade level in mathematics.

"And to see that go away after a quick decision is heartbreaking. ... We're just so disappointed the board voted to end the partnership with Ombudsman," Allison O'Neill, the senior vice president of Ombudsman Educational Services, said in a telephone interview. Ms. O'Neill is not related to Mr. O'Neill, McDuffie County's assistant superintendent.

Board member Ella Mae Samuels said she wanted to see more proof, such as testing results. Because she did not see proof that the academics were better, Rev. Samuels said she felt McDuffie "was not getting what we paid for," and she voted against renewing the contract with Ombudsman.

Ms. O'Neill said February was the first time that Ombudsman became aware that there were issues on the school board level. At that time, she said Mr. Wacha began holding meetings with school administrators and counselors and the Thomson Center director.

"We really felt the meetings were addressing those things and we were starting to move in the right direction," Ms. O'Neill said. "We saw this as a partnership, and we take whatever feedback that we get and we look to continue to improve and address any issues that may be there, and see how we can meet the needs of school districts."

Rev. Samuels attended the informational meetings with Mr. Wacha, as did board chairwoman Georgia Hobbs. Board member Dorothy Hart attended one of the meetings.

Greg Derry, who cast the lone "no" vote against terminating the contract, said he did not feel informed enough to vote to end the program. Mr. Derry asked for a breakdown of numbers from the school system comptroller, as well as testing information. He said the board members did receive "a flood of financial numbers" but no information of the academics aspect of the program.

"I was opposed to the termination of the contract because in my estimation I did not have sufficient information to make an 'apples to apples' comparison with the previous alternative school effort," Mr. Derry said in an email.

Board Member Bob Smith, who made the recommendation to terminate the Ombudsman contract, said he was not comfortable with the program because the students attended sessions for only three hours a day. Mr. Smith said he was the one responsible for first bringing in the CrossRoads school while he was principal of Thomson High School. He said he believes a better custom-made alternative program can be made "in-house."

A meeting was held Tuesday with school administrators to form a plan for another alternative school in the county.

Web posted on Thursday, April 02, 2009

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