Doing what is arguably one of the most important jobs on behalf of the citizens of Harford County, Robert M. Tomback has just wrapped up his second year as superintendent of schools, putting him at the midway point of a four-year, $190,000 contract. How is he doing so far? The answer will come, in part, from an internal review process known as a “360 degree evaluation.”
Designed to improve performance by helping employees recognize their strengths and weaknesses, a 360 degree evaluation gathers feedback about an employee from the people above, below, and alongside them on the organizational chart. The feedback is shared with the employee but the exact sources are to be kept strictly anonymous: the idea is to encourage candor among the employee’s evaluators, some of whom are being asked to rate the boss. That’s a bit tricky inside HCPS, where the superintendent is everyone’s boss, and trickier still considering that Tomback handpicked all of his evaluators.
Professionals in the field say that evaluators can be picked in a variety of ways, depending on the philosophy and goals of the evaluation. But HCPS insiders are crying foul, saying that anonymity and objectivity were undermined by allowing Tomback to pick his own raters, and that the “360s” were done for differently other employees, where the subject picked some evaluators and a third party picked the rest.
Mark Wolkow, who was the president of the school board at the time Tomback’s 360 was implemented, defended the practice, saying that in his experience, that’s the way 360s are always done when they are used as a self-development tool, adding “The Superintendent’s 360 is no different.”
Process aside, Wolkow said that Tomback’s 360 degree evaluation was intended to provide the superintendent with feedback he might not otherwise get from school board members, who collectively act as Tomback’s employer. Wolkow stressed that the 360 would be separate from the school board’s evaluation, which determines Tomback’s eligibility for a 10 percent bonus each year–a bonus that HCPS spokeswoman Teri Kranefeld said would not be paid this year due to budget constraints.
Bonus or no, Dagger readers are invited to complete the circle by offering their own evaluation of Tomback’s performance below. But first, here is a word from Dr. Tomback about his second year in office, followed by a sampling of Dagger news stories from the second year of his tenure.
The Dagger invited Dr. Tomback to share his reflections on year two, posing the following questions:
Looking back on your second year as superintendent of HCPS, what would you say are your major accomplishments and/or what initiatives were begun or continued in year two that you think will have a positive effect on student learning?
Was there anything – actions/decisions within your control – that you would do differently?
Looking forward, what are your major concerns for HCPS and for public education in general?
Tomback’s response to the above questions follows:
Our students strive to achieve great things every day and they are supported by our highly skilled, dedicated, motivated, and inspirational teachers, support staff, and administrators. As the Board’s strategic plan clearly demonstrates, our system goals remain squarely focused on student achievement as the result of the effectiveness and efficiency of all aspects of school system organization.
It is vital that we strive for continuous improvement by collaborating with our colleagues and stakeholders and by assessing our performance, reviewing our progress and making necessary adjustments. Our unalterable and unwavering focus is on the success of all students.
Year Two – News in Review
In a dramatic reversal from his first year as superintendent, when Tomback proposed a 2 percent salary cut for all employees, his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 included funding for salary increases. Those increases were later negotiated to provide a 3 percent cost of living increase for all employees, plus longevity and step increases for those who were eligible.
Tomback said he recommended the increase, to be funded by Harford County government, to avoid falling further behind with employees who hadn’t had a raise in two years. But citing the still-weak economy, County Executive David Craig didn’t provide the $15.3 million needed to fund the negotiated salary boost. Craig’s budget was later approved by the County Council, throwing the school board and employee unions into renegotiations that are still in progress.
New Blood and the Transfusion from Baltimore County
A management reorganization that Tomback began in year one combined with vacancies from several high level departures brought new blood to HCPS leadership–mainly from Baltimore County, where Tomback was last employed as an area superintendent.
Among the new central office employees with Baltimore connections: Tomback’s right hand man Bill Lawrence; the head of human resources, Jean Mantegna; the budget director, Ed Fields; the head of guidance and counseling, Kevin Ensor; and the head of community engagement and cultural proficiency, Jonathan Brown. One notable exception to the Baltimore County trend was the elevation of Fallston High School Principal Joe Schmitz to replace Dave Volrath as executive director of high school performance, although Schmitz’ Fallston post was filled by Richard Jester, a Baltimore County high school principal.
Talent can come from anywhere, of course, and it’s not surprising that Tomback would tap former colleagues for open spots. But behind the scenes, HCPS insiders, along with some elected officials, have questioned the moves, noting that Harford County residents pay the salaries of several key people who live outside the county, starting with Tomback himself. No single employee has raised as much consternation as Bill Lawrence. His detractors say that Lawrence is a poor collaborator who acts as the gatekeeper to Tomback. Lawrence, who rejects the characterization of gatekeeper, sat down with The Dagger for an extensive interview in November.
Elementary School Redistricting
Few issues generate more angst from parents than school redistricting, and an elementary redistricting completed in Tomback’s second year started out no differently. Undertaken to create an attendance area for the new Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air and to relieve overcrowding and balance enrollment among the 32 other county elementary schools, the issue dominated the school news from November through March.
Tomback took a public back seat to veteran operations chief Joe Licata, who headed up redistricting committees under several previous superintendents. This time, Licata suffered less than his usual quota of slings and arrows, in part because parent input was used to revise some of his committee’s initial proposals and while not perfect, the recommendations made in Tomback’s name were much improved. Not only did Tomback emerge from the process largely unscathed, he received public expressions of thanks from a number of grateful parents.
Tomback suddenly demoted the principals of Joppatowne and Aberdeen high schools, telling them in April that they would be reassigned elsewhere within the system for the next school year. The school system wouldn’t comment on the reason behind the moves affecting the longtime school leaders, citing law preventing the discussion of personnel matters. But the demotion of Aberdeen Principal Tom Szerensits sparked an unprecedented backlash. Over 100 students spilled out of school in a traffic-stopping protest one morning in early May, holding placards and chanting “Save Szerensits.” In an open letter to the Aberdeen community, Szerensits said that he was crushed and confused by the move.
Tomback kept a low profile in the aftermath, failing to attend a signature event for Aberdeen students, and the school board pushed back a bit, temporarily holding up the approval of related employee appointments. Eventually, Tomback got board approval to transfer Szerensits to Bel Air High as an assistant principal for next year and Joppatowne Principal Macon Tucker was transferred as an assistant principal to Patterson Mill, which has leadership problems of its own.
Patterson Mill Theft
Under Principal Wayne Thibeault, a felony theft of more than $10,000 occurred at Patterson Mill sometime during the nine-month period between December 2009 and September 2010. Following a criminal investigation that began in October, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office recently announced that no charges would be filed due to a “lack of accountability in the handling of money.” Despite demands for accountability from parents and questions from The Dagger, Tomback has yet to provide a full response. (Please see related story)
High School Credit Where Credit is Due
When middle school students complete high school level math courses, Superintendent Tomback said that it only made sense for those students to receive high school credit. He vowed in his first year to take up the issue and kept his promise in year two, bringing the measure up for board approval in April. It passed in June, although on a split vote over some of the details that highlighted what Tomback called his “philosophical differences” with some school board members.
At issue was whether such students could use the high school math credits they earned in middle school to offset the four math credits required in high school. Board members who supported the idea said that it would allow students who didn’t want to take calculus or other high level math courses to pursue other subjects in high school. Tomback’s philosophy, approved by a majority vote of the board, was that in addition to any high school math credits earned in middle school, students should also have to earn four math credits while in high school.
Free AP Exams
In addition to salary increases, one of the few new initiatives in the superintendent’s recommended budget was $223,000 to pay the exam fees for students who take Advanced Placement tests. The college level tests cost $87 each, a cost currently borne by students or waived for students living in poverty. Tomback’s idea was to increase AP test-taking by setting aside enough money to offer one free test per AP student, based on the previous year’s participation rate. But the budget item was defeated by the school board in a 4 to 3 vote.
Bel Air-area School Ranked Among Nation’s Best
In related news, three Harford County public high schools – Bel Air, C.Milton Wright and Patterson Mill- were listed among the top high schools in the nation by The Washington Post, which ranks schools based on the number of AP exams given at a school. Student performance on the exams is not a factor; schools make the list only when the number of test given equals or exceeds the number of graduating seniors.
Test Scores Beat State Average
Fairly or not, state and federal governments measure the success of public school systems in part by student performance on state tests, and overall, Harford County beat the Maryland average again in the 2010-11 school year. High school data has yet to be released by the state, but the results of third through eighth grade tests in reading and math were put out in late June and are still being evaluated by Harford County school officials. In a preliminary analysis, The Dagger made note of the county elementary and middle schools where results were up or down by 10 percentage points or more.