July 1, 2010 will mark the end of Dr. Robert M. Tomback’s first year on the job as the superintendent of Harford County Public Schools. How’s he doing so far?
To be fair, Dr. Tomback faced harsh economic realities over the past year and any assessment of his performance should take that into account. At the same time, the decisions Tomback made under the circumstances; the way decisions were communicated; and his response to actions taken by staff under his supervision, are all a reflection of Tomback’s leadership as much as the initiatives he also set in motion.
With that in mind, the following is a brief chronology of the superintendent’s first year, offered to facilitate a public review of this very public role. I’ve limited the list to events and actions on the public record, and to those that affected the entire school system. Readers are welcome to add to the list.
“I Can’t Be Jackie Haas.”
Invoking the late superintendent whom he replaced, Dr. Tomback said at the outset that he wasn’t going to be like his predecessor. For better or for worse, that quickly became apparent.
President Barack Obama’s national back-to-school message was not broadcast live in HCPS as the President had intended, but recorded and shown to students a few days later. HCPS lacked the capacity to show a live speech and the delay allowed for more meaningful instruction, Tomback later said. But mixed signals from HCPS before the live speech, brought an angry crowd to the boardroom and prompted charges of racism against the school system from the school board’s vice-president, Dr. Leonard Wheeler.
Assembling student representatives from Harford’s public middle and high schools, one of the new superintendent’s first initiatives was to solicit input from a key constituency – the students. Dr. Tomback met with his Student Advisory Council to get their take on things throughout the school year.
Tax Cut Kibosh
When the Harford County Council considered a repeal of the impact fee (the fee is used to build, renovate and maintain school facilities), Tomback pushed back by recommending that the school board oppose the repeal. The county council later approved a reduction in the fee, rather than outright elimination.
Where Credit is Due
Correcting a long-standing inequity, Dr. Tomback said that middle school students who take and pass high school level courses (like Algebra I), should get high school credit. Tomback’s pronouncement came in response to a committee recommendation, but the superintendent gave the idea legs, calling for implementation plans to move forward.
A 2% salary cut for all employees was buried in line-items scattered throughout Dr. Tomback’s 500-page budget proposal for next year, with no mention from the superintendent. Tomback later said that the line-items were placeholders, since salaries are subject to collective bargaining. But without a heads up from the superintendent, employees were blindsided when the cuts were uncovered by The Dagger, adding to employee anger over the superintendent’s decision to propose cuts in the first place. Money later added to the budget by Harford County Executive David Craig and approved by the county council, combined with budget adjustments from HCPS, restored the amount needed to reverse the line-item cuts.
Representing teachers, the Harford County Education Association filed a grievance with the superintendent after President Randy Cerveny’s e-mail account was shut down by HCPS for alleged violations of the negotiated agreement. Cerveny had been sending messages rallying teachers to budget hearings and Cerveny said he tried to resolve the dispute directly with Tomback before filing the grievance. After some negotiation the grievance was dropped and Cerveny’s e-mail account was restored.
Drama Therapy Drama
An edgy drama/therapy program presented to all Havre de Grace High School students, without parental consent, prompted complaints from parents and set off a firestorm that spread to Annapolis. HCPS first responded with a vague, jargon-laden plan leading to a complaint to the Maryland Department of Education. The state contacted HCPS, but handed the matter back as a local issue. HCPS later came up with a checklist for oversight of future school assemblies.
Citing employees’ right to free speech, the superintendent declined to respond to Facebook postings targeting the parents who first complained, and written by one of the HCPS teachers involved in Drama Therapy.
Legislators bristled when Dr. Tomback wouldn’t provide a DVD of Drama Therapy without a formal Maryland Public Information Act request. The superintendent was called to Annapolis and got an earful about what Delegate Dan Riley called “putting up little road blocks” with the elected officials who advocate for school funding from the state and answer to constituents back home. Tomback stood by his demand for an MPIA request and wouldn’t comment on personnel, but finally acknowledged that mistakes had been made with Drama Therapy.
Race To The Top
Joining in Maryland’s bid for a share of billions in federal school funding known as Race to the Top, Tomback signed the Memorandum of Understanding needed to bolster the state’s application.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Web Sites
Avoiding a potential lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, the school system lifted a ban on student access to informational Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Web sites. Tomback had his staff present the reason for the decision at a board meeting where the public was poised to vent on both sides. Public opinion remained divided, but at least everyone was operating from the same set of facts.
Without negotiation or clear communication from HCPS, the school system made changes to the healthcare plan for next year that will hike up costs for school employees. Hundreds turned out at school board meetings to protest; some were angry, some asked for negotiation, and some worried over gut-wrenching personal health problems. The school board promised to negotiate healthcare benefits next year, but Tomback’s lack of engagement was called out by one protestor, another called for his resignation.
Dr. Tomback redesigned the org chart, saying it would save $186,000; and created and filled two high level positions. William A. Lawrence, a colleague from Tomback’s days at Baltimore County Public Schools, was named the Associate Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment, meaning he will be Tomback’s number two on the instructional side of HCPS. Barbara Canavan, a successful principal at Southampton Middle School was elevated to oversee Harford County’s nine public middle schools, bringing new attention to those crucial, in-between years.
Tomback sidelined a proposed grading policy that was on the fast track for implementation in next school year. The plan was in the works before Tomback came to Harford County, and had been tweaked along the way, but it continued to draw criticism from parents, teachers and students. Tomback pulled the plug for now and handed the proposal off to Lawrence for review.
Of course, the above list is only the public side of the story. Inside the walls of the HCPS administration building, in 53 public schools, and in the wider community, the other side of the story unfolded this past year.
It’s up to the members of the Harford County Board of Education to sum it all up, factor in the learning curve of any first year on the job, and come up with a final assessment that will be measured, in part, in dollar terms. Per Dr. Tomback’s contract, he is eligible to receive a bonus of up to of 10% of his salary, or $19,000, based on parameters proposed by Tomback himself, and approved the board.