Tomback's legacy: What we saw, heard is what we got [Commentary]

It's doubtful Robert Tomback's recent decision not to seek another contract as Harford's school superintendent came as a surprise to very many people.

In three and half years at the helm of the school system, Tomback doesn't appear to have made many friends in the community he commutes to daily from his home in Timonium. He cultivated few, if any, allies among elected officials. He's more likely to skip school and community events than to show up at them. Some people who work in the school system describe him as tyrannical, but then any leader of an organization with 5,000 employees is going to have people who don't like them.

Tomback has been much different from his late predecessor, Jacqueline Haas, who was outgoing, reachable and more likely to be seen in the halls of a school than sitting behind a desk in her office. Not long after Tomback was hired, I told someone I had the impression he was passing through town on the way to his next job or to retirement. Though this seems to have been the case, as it turns out he may have been the right person for the job all along.

In preparing this column, I reread my former colleague Rachel Konopacki's three in-person interviews with Tomback, one in May 2009 during his final hiring process, one in June 2009 just after he signed his contract and one in September 2010 just before he started his second school year as superintendent. Here are the most pertinent of his comments:

"I don't subscribe to a particular leadership style. My theory is leadership needs to adapt to situations." - during hiring process 2009.

"Complacency is an enemy of an effective organization. I will do everything I can to see that Harford County Public Schools moves forward." - during hiring process 2009.

"It is essential to support [teachers] to the greatest extent possible." - during hiring process 2009.

"The progress of every student in the school system is the highest priority." - after signing his contract June 2009.

"It's all about achievement. We are addressing several of the achievement gaps that exist and we have made improvements across the board. Are we improving? The answer is absolutely we are." - September 2010 just before starting his second school year.

"We need to be ahead of the curve with a program of instruction that prepares kids for the enormous opportunities for BRAC-related careers. We want our kids to be at the front of the line." - September 2010.

"Do I have a sense of the nature of Harford County Public Schools and the nature of each school? There has to be a firm foundation or basis on which to initiate conversations. I will continue to develop a deep understanding of school and communities. I can tell you that I don't know everything, but I know much more than when I got here." - September 2010.

Tomback entered under the most difficult circumstances. He was an outsider taking over an organization from a popular leader, Dr. Haas, who had worked her way up from the classroom to superintendent. One of the first things he had to address was the always hysterical process of school redistricting. He came on board just as the economy was tanking, meaning the state, and to a lesser degree the county, had fewer funds at their discretion for schools. He was hired by the last all-appointed school board, and the board not only transitioned to having more members - with several of them now elected - only one person on the board that hired Tomback is still serving.

No question that Tomback was an agent for change. He reorganized the system's administration and either promoted from within or brought in people he had worked with in his last job in Baltimore County. He wanted a middle school performance system on par with elementary and high schools and implemented one. Most of the school principal jobs have new faces from four years ago, and some of those changes were involuntary.

Did he stick up for teachers? Well, based on salaries, you would have to say he didn't, since theirs and those of all school employees have been all but frozen since Tomback arrived. Some of this has to do with the economy and the political process, things not totally under Tomback's control, although I think the superintendent very quickly learned how to manipulate the political process to his advantage. In fact, I would say he was masterful in promising and delivering nothing he didn't think he could get, even if it was in fact – nothing.

Beyond salaries, teachers still have their coveted instructional facilitator and mentor posts, they still enjoy decent benefits, they teach smaller classes and their level of professional development and certification has generally increased.

Has Tomback ended the achievement gap that exists between the have and have-not school communities? He hasn't, but there has been a marked improvement in school progress, according to state measurements, and when you are fighting a 50-year legacy of having two separate school systems under one name, as Harford's is, the inequities aren't going to be wrung out in three and a half years. To Tomback's credit, he did not tolerate substandard or stagnant performance and rolled heads where he saw it.

In looking at some of the performance measurements of the school system published by the Maryland Department of Education - and this is by no means a complete or scientific study - the percentage of Harford teachers with advanced professional certificates has risen from 65.2 to 70.8 percent during the Tomback era, while the percentage of classes taught by teachers not rated highly qualified has decreased from 5.1 to 3.5 percent.

Among the Harford seniors who graduated last spring and who took the Maryland High School Assessment, 87 percent passed English, 93 percent passed algebra, 87 passed biology and 92.5 passed government, all above state averages. These kids were in 10th grade when Tomback arrived. In addition, the 2012 cohort graduation rate in Harford was 88.41 percent, up from 85.67 two years earlier.

My guess is not many people will miss Robert Tomback when he's gone, because it very well could seem like he was never here. Yet, this is one initial skeptic who thinks we got exactly what we saw and heard when he arrived – like it or not.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad