Making an Overwhelming Workload Manageable
By Chantelle Carter
Nonpublic Ombudsman, Ohio Department of Education

How does it feel to be the only person in the state in my role and engaging in my work? It’s a good thing I thrive in a fast-paced environment with a dozen things happening simultaneously! The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) authorized each state to create a nonpublic ombudsman to provide support to both public and nonpublic school stakeholders. My primary responsibility as ombudsman is to ensure the provision of equitable services occurs according to the law. Equitable services are provided by the public school district to eligible children, teachers and families enrolled in a nonpublic school who wish to participate in Title I, IIA, III or IVA federal programs. In my state (Ohio), this equates to nearly $37 million of equitable services delivered to 557 nonpublic schools by 405 public districts. Because of the size and scope of equitable services in Ohio, my time is always in demand. Needless to say, my workload requires implementing solid organizational processes to ensure good job performance. Below are a few steps that work for me:

Advocate for Yourself and Your Work

Knowing what’s best for yourself and your job and advocating for it is critical to your success. When I was given the role of ombudsman, it was on top of my existing role as a consultant in the Office of Federal Programs at the State Department of Education. As a consultant, I had a full-time caseload of public school districts that I supported through the entire grants management process. From reviewing consolidated applications to subrecipient monitoring, I was doing it all. As ombudsman, I added the roles of supporting every district and nonpublic school in the state specifically on the provision of equitable services. This was too much for one person, even me. To demonstrate how heavy my workload was, I tracked all the equitable services inquiries and questions I received from the field and presented it to my superiors. This data supported my request to move to 100% full-time ombudsman. This was huge, as now my sole focus is on equitable services and providing support to the entire state – nonpublic and public. I would not be able to do this had I not had the consultant work removed from my workload.

Plan Ahead and Prioritize

Being able to effectively plan ahead and prioritize tasks is essential to my work.  If I have a deadline I am working against, I always push it back and give myself an earlier deadline.  I do not know when an emergency complaint or situation may come to me. I want to ensure that if one does, I can devote the time necessary to bring it to resolution. I also schedule my work time by blocking off my calendar for tasks. This shows my colleagues that I am “busy” and lets me have uninterrupted worktime to focus on the task at hand. During busy times, I will also let phone calls ring to voicemail so that I can keep the rhythm of the job I am working on. Later, after completing my primary tasks, I return the calls. I am very good at using all available resources.  I rarely “reinvent the wheel”.  I frequently take a resource that I have already created for the field and repurpose it for a specific audience or situation.

Create an Organizational System That Works for You

Organization is key. In order to meet the never-ending demands that come with grants management, you must be organized! My busiest time of year is during sub-recipient monitoring. Since my primary responsibility includes monitoring the provision of equitable services, I participate in nearly all our in-person, onsite reviews of school districts that provide equitable services to nonpublic schools.  During these reviews, I monitor fiscal records as well as programmatic requirements. I may visit multiple nonpublic schools and public districts in a week. It is essential that I take clear notes on my observations and findings.

I am a paper, sticky notes and highlighter kind of girl. When I return to the office from my meetings, I take notes and updates on my follow-up actions on the same Word document. This helps me keep each district separate as I work with them on their findings and corrective action plans. Many of my colleagues have transitioned to digital organization, but I am very “old school.” This system works best for me. Whether you prefer to organize your work digitally or stick to “old school” methods like me, find what works for you. Organizational systems are important for successful grants management!

Communicate and Be Transparent

Even though I am the only nonpublic ombudsman in our state, I am part of a great team. I make sure to keep communication open with and provide transparency to my team. For example, I provide training to our consultants who review grant applications and also model how to review applications for nonpublic issues by peer-reviewing the applications. I make my peer review notes available to both the grantee and the consultants who reviewed the application. This strengthens the knowledge of the team, building capacity, which ultimately makes my job easier. If I ever need assistance, I have colleagues that are quick to step in to assist. I am not afraid to ask for help when I need it.

Advocating for yourself and your work, planning ahead, creating an organizational process that works for you and having strong communication skills are all essential in being successful in your role. Above all else, it is essential that you take time to recharge. Time to yourself is necessary to ensure your efficiency level is 100% at work. I am very good about closing my laptop at the end of the workday and leaving behind the work demands.

Working in grants management is not something I ever saw in my future.  I “fell” into it and I love it. It is challenging, demanding and keeps me on my toes. I enjoy working in a fast-paced environment and thrive on challenges.  My personality is well suited to the position.  I think it would be very difficult to do this position if “organized chaos” was not something I could tolerate. 

Chantelle Carter is a Nonpublic Ombudsman with the Ohio Department of Education. She has been providing support to public and nonpublic school in this and previous roles for more than nine years. Prior to her grants management roles, she was a decorated classroom teacher and a director of educational operations at a non-profit learning center. In her downtime, Chantelle enjoys hanging out with her dogs and being outdoors.