Friday, November 02, 2007

School Activist's Next Assignment

Board Member Picked for Ombudsman, Praised for Commitment

By David Nakamura
Washington Post
Friday, October 26, 2007

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has selected a longtime school activist who serves on the D.C. State Board of Education to become the city's first public education ombudsman, a critical role in Fenty's plan to improve the troubled system.

Tonya Vidal Kinlow, 46, whose children have attended D.C. public schools, would be responsible for investigating and responding to complaints from parents and school employees, Fenty (D) said yesterday at a news conference.

Kinlow is "well regarded in the community, cognizant of education issues locally and nationally and brings a fervor and passion for reform," Fenty said at Leckie Elementary School in Southwest Washington.

Kinlow's appointment is subject to confirmation by the D.C. Council. If confirmed, she would start in December and be paid about $135,000 a year. She would be based in the city government building at 441 Fourth Street NW.

As part of his takeover of the 49,000-student school system, Fenty promised to appoint an ombudsman with the power to help parents resolve complaints, in part because the school board's role was being diminished. The mayor took months to fill the job.

Kinlow is vice president for government relations at the D.C. Hospital Association and was appointed by Fenty in the spring to serve as vice president of the new D.C. State Board of Education. She had previously served as an elected school board member, and she is the vice chairman of DC Voice, a school advocacy group.

Kinlow said she intends to resign from the hospital association and the school board. As ombudsman, she would be responsible for issuing monthly reports and suggesting policy changes to Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. She would have the authority to investigate all aspects of the system, Fenty said, including instruction and facilities. When parents file complaints, she will determine the validity of the complaints and respond.

Kinlow said she would act without fear of retribution from the mayor or chancellor.

"How I will maintain my independence is to just tell the truth," she said. "I asked the mayor to at least let me tell what I'm seeing: 'You are the one who will make the final decision, but I've got to lay out the picture of what the problem is.' "

Jeff Smith, director of DC Voice and a former D.C. school board member, said Kinlow knows firsthand the frustration of parents.

"She can be very aggressive for a positive cause, whatever she's trying to advance," Smith said. "She always sat at the table as a parent. . . . That led her to be so involved."

Of Fenty's five top education appointees, Kinlow is the only African American. She lives in Ward 8 and is among a handful of mayoral appointees who live east of the Anacostia River. Fenty has been criticized for not having more African Americans or more residents of the eastern part of the city among his top-ranking officials.

To select an ombudsman, Fenty aides said, they considered 80 resumes during a national search and brought in a half-dozen candidates for interviews. Kinlow did not initially apply. But when Robert C. Bobb, the school board president and a member of the ombudsman search committee, was unable to attend one interview session, Kinlow filled in for him.

Rhee, Bobb and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor A. Reinoso said they were so impressed by Kinlow's performance -- the questions she asked and the report she later gave to Bobb -- that they asked her to apply.

"She's a quiet revolutionary," Bobb said.

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