EdVo-Post: Trustee or Ombudsman – who should you call?

There can be confusion about the role of the Ombudsman versus the role of your locally elected Trustee.  You may not know who to turn to when you have a concern about your child and school.  I hope that this information will help you decide which route to go.

  • If you are at all like me, when your child is having a problem with anything at all, you will want to have it fixed RIGHT AWAY.   You are also likely to be much more concerned about helping your child than in changing School Board or Ministry of Education policies.  In this case, call or email your local Trustee.
  • If you are having trouble reaching your local Trustee, or don’t think that your Trustee is doing everything possible to help you, I suggest that you contact another Trustee of your School Board.  Doing this can be somewhat awkward, but every Trustee is equally responsible for ensuring that your child is properly supported, and every Trustee is able to help you and your child.
  • If you want to change policies that apply to all children, and are willing to wait for that long process to work its way to a conclusion, you could reach out to either your local Trustee or the Ombudsman’s office. (If you know of a Trustee on your School Board who is very interested in policy matters, I suggest that you contact that Trustee.)
  • If you have run out of options with Trustees and board staff, if Board or Ministry procedures are getting in the way of helping your child, and especially if you think that these procedures aren’t following goals of Board or Ministry policies, get in touch with the Ombudsman’s office.  This is precisely the sort of situation that they have been set up to deal with.

Here are some of the reasons that I have for suggesting who will be best able to help you achieve your goal.

Ontario’s Education Act imposes on each Trustee the duty to “bring concerns of parents, students and supporters of the board to the attention of the board” (218.1d), as well to  “monitoring and evaluate the effectiveness” of Board policies (169.1.1e).

The Ombudsman’s primary task is to investigate how the School Board made the decision that you are challenging to ensure that proper process was followed.  The Ombudsman does not have the power to overturn the School Board’s decision but may recommend changes to Board or Ministry policies and procedures.

The basic structure of the “concern resolution policy” of most Boards is that you first raise an issue with the school, then with the area Superintendent, and finally – if need be – with the Director of Education.  But at any stage a parent or community member can ask the Trustee for guidance or to intervene.  It is likely that the Ombudsman’s office staff will want you to have followed your Board’s policy before it will look into your concern.

The duties set out by the Education Act for Trustees may seem to be similar to the role of the Ombudsman’s office.  But there are some significant differences that will help you decide where you should go for help:

  • Trustees understand local community needs and priorities, and are easily accessible to, and usually well-known by, the community (Ombudsman staff have no ties to, and no specific knowledge of, the community that gave rise to the concern)
  • Trustees, acting collectively, have the power to set (or change) policy and to give instructions to the board management (the Ombudsman can only make recommendations)
  • Trustees have long-standing relationships with both local school staff and board management that allow them to quickly and informally help resolve your concern (the Ombudsman’s staff have no ongoing relationships with local school staff or board management, and all of their inquiries must be done formally and go through rigidly defined channels)
  • Trustees have deep knowledge of their Board’s policies and procedures allowing them to help a parent understand how to quickly find a satisfactory resolution (before the Ombudsman’s office can even begin to look into a concern, someone must first take time to research how the Board handles an issue).
  • the Ombudsman’s office has considerably greater resources to use when looking into a complaint. Unlike MPs, MPPs, or Municipal Councillors – all of whom have staff to handle constituent’s concerns – Trustees (considered to be a part-time job) have no similar resources to call upon.
  • the Ombudsman’s office has the power to compel board management to provide all information requested concerning a complaint (individual Trustees don’t have this power, board management only needs to comply with instructions made by formal vote of the Board of Trustees, usually a slow and ponderous process – though ideally board management will work closely with a local Trustee to look into and quickly resolve a concern)
  • the Ombudsman’s office can look into and make recommendations about Provincial policies and procedures (a Trustee’s authority is limited to their own Board’s practices, though they are free, as interested citizens, to comment on Provincial policies)