Leadership skills, high public profile needed in new superintendent [Editorial]

When Dr. Robert Tomback became superintendent of Harford County Public Schools in 2009, he was not only an unknown from Baltimore County, but also it was unknown how he might perform.

The direction of the school system's leadership structure was another great unknown. The county was making the transition from a board of education wholly appointed by the governor to a board with a majority of its members elected by the people of Harford County.

The Tomback era in the school system also came about amid a time of tumult resulting from the unexpected death of the previous superintendent, Jacqueline Haas, who succumbed at 59 to an asthma attack in late 2008 during the Christmas break.

Dr. Haas' interim replacement, Patricia Skebeck, a career educator in the county school system, made it clear she had been planning to retire, and she had no intention of changing her plans.

In the four years since Tomback took over the chief management position in the school system there has been nearly complete turnover on the board of education, whose primary responsibility is to hire, oversee and evaluate a superintendent.

When Tomback was hired, he was signed to a four-year contract, which concludes at the end of the current academic year, and it was announced this week that he would not seek a new contract. While it is unclear if Tomback is displeased with the board or the board with him, or if the parting is by mutual agreement, it is clear the departing superintendent's management style was substantially different from predecessors, whose overall style met with success.

Dr. Haas, though she had her management shortcomings when it came to implementing consistent policies, did set a positive tone for the system's management, and was respected by state and county elected officials as a good steward of the system. On top of that, she was well-liked even by those who disagreed with her, and her untimely death has tended to set her legacy as being possibly more ideal for the job than she was. Still, her high profile style served the system well.

Similarly, the late Ray Keech, who served as superintendent from 1989 to 1996, had a high profile management style that often put him in close contact with students and teachers, often in rather informal settings. A musician, he would on occasion play his euphonium on visits to schools. Dr. Keech also had a reputation within the school system of successfully corralling managerial freelancing and nipping problems in the bud.

Between Dr. Keech and Dr. Haas came Jeffery N. Grotsky, who, like Dr. Keech, was from Michigan. Unlike Dr. Keech and Dr. Haas, he followed a rather Spartan regimen when managing the schools, that rubbed the staff, and the board that hired him, the wrong way. The school board ended up buying out his contract out early.

Unfortunately, when the school board hired Grotsky, it overlooked or snubbed qualified administrators who were already working in the school system. Several left and were eagerly hired by other school systems, including three who went on to successful careers as superintendents elsewhere.

On the whole, it's probably fair to say the Tomback era was neither as good as that of Keech or Haas, nor as weak as that of Grotsky. His public persona is almost non-existent, which is a real weakness in a system that has been led most successfully in recent decades by two fairly gregarious people. His technical management skills may well have been reasonable, but it seems his real strengths were in convincing elected officials to fund the school system at the level he wanted, even while appearing to do nothing.

Given the changes on the school board that took place on his watch, Tomback can be credited with following the conscripts of the Hippocratic Oath insofar as he did no harm.

It stands to reason that a wholly new school board – only one member remains from the board that hired Tomback – might be inclined to go in a new direction.

In the search for a new superintendent, the board would do well to remember that the local school system seems to have been managed best when it is managed by people with rather charismatic personalities.

The board should also give careful and serious consideration to candidates who have risen in the ranks of Harford County Public Schools, so as not to miss, as has happened before, hiring a strong candidate with valuable institutional knowledge.

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