During a crisis, whether it’s a global public health emergency like the pandemic or an internal financial disaster, community trust can make or break a school district’s recovery.
Richard Tomko, the superintendent of the 4,700-student Belleville, N.J., school system, believes the key to keeping the community in one’s corner is showing clear, visible evidence of improvements for students.
It’s how he took a district under state financial oversight, millions in deficit, and flagging community support to one that’s added new programs—including pre-K and academic and transition services for students with disabilities—and convinced the community to back more than $50 million in bonds to upgrade old buildings and facilities.
“When he came in, one of the hardest things was [that] the township was not trusting of the board and the schools,” said Ryan Kline, the district’s director of special education. “[Tomko] is great on a personal level at making stronger connections with town leaders, with businesses, and bringing people to the table to buy into a vision of our schools.”
Stepping into a minefield
Tomko, 49, arrived in 2015, a year after the overwhelmingly Hispanic district was placed under state oversight for yearslong financial mismanagement. It had racked up a $4.2 million deficit, and audits had found troubling fiscal problems—from overpaying for tutors and technology services to high legal fees tied to a 2013 sexual misconduct case involving a special education aide.
While the district got a state loan to help stabilize its budget, the bigger problem was that “we were so mismanaged and poorly led that there were just tendrils of ineffective practice throughout the district,” said Thomas D’Elia, who was then the athletic director. “Morale was at an all-time low. We were losing good teachers, technology was behind, and the district itself was very stagnant.”
Tomko rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Within four years, he’d moved the school system into the black financially, though it’s still under state watch.
His approach: Make sure every district resource—from staff, to space, to community relationships—was being used as effectively as possible.
He found an untapped pipeline of teachers and administrators who had the deep experience or interest to move into higher leadership roles, but who did not have the advanced degrees or certifications to do so. Tomko encouraged administrators to earn their doctorates—and take on more responsibilities in the school system.
D’Elia was one of them. He went from being an athletic director to earning his doctorate in teacher education and overhauling the district’s teacher-induction and professional development programs.
“I was hired as an athletic director five years before [Tomko became superintendent] and no one before him had ever taken the time to actually ask what I wanted to do, professionally speaking,” D’Elia said. “He took time to learn people and learn their talents and learn what their motivations were administratively.”
Gov. Phil Murphy noticed Tomko’s work with his staff and invited him to join a statewide task force on public school staffing shortages to share Belleville’s successful strategies with other school systems.
Poor land management and planning had also left the district with limited options to expand programs or build schools, so Tomko found creative ways to breathe new life into underused spaces on campus and in the community. He reconfigured grades to free up classroom space at the middle school level, and repurposed an old factory to create a new community-shared athletic center.
The district also partnered with local hospitals and other industries to develop career academies to reduce costs, while giving students access to equipment and professionals in fields like medicine and engineering.
Tomko himself grew up in neighboring Bergen County and has always seen education as a community endeavor.
While studying pre-med at Seton Hall University, he got a summer substitute teaching gig that changed his life.
“I was initially like, ‘Oh, it’s extra money,’ ... but I’d never wanted be a teacher,” Tomko recalled. “Then I got into that classroom, the first or second day, and just fell in love with it. It’s so powerful to have someone in front of you that you know is the future of this community, and when you show them something they didn’t know, it’s such a powerful tool.”
Tomko kept learning, earning a master’s degree in child law and policy from Loyola University Chicago, a doctorate in educational leadership from Seton Hall, and an array of graduate certificates in community and economic development, business administration, and brain-based teaching from other universities.
His work in education over more than 20 years spans stints as an athletic director, high school principal, and an assistant superintendent overseeing curriculum and instruction. He served as the superintendent in Elmwood Park in Bergen County from 2010 to 2015 before launching an unsuccessful state senate bid.
Then he bested about 50 candidates for the Belleville job—and won the opportunity to integrate schooling into its community.
“I always love learning, and I love learning new things that are going on in other places that I can bring here to this community,” he said.
Boosting special education
Tomko also turned his sights to special education services, which state audits had found rife with overpayments to outside vendors even as some students didn’t get the services required by state law. Belleville moved some of those programs in-district to serve students with moderate-to-severe cognitive and developmental disabilities, such as autism.
The district also bought two single-family homes abutting the high school campus, which it rehabbed to use for transitional housing instruction for about 20 students with disabilities, particularly those with autism.
In one of the houses, students ages 18 to 21 learn basic life-skills, such as laundering clothes, cleaning, and housing and property maintenance. The other house has two classrooms that can hold up to 16 students each, and where they learn about personal finance and business management—including running a local print-screening shop on-site—and get help with job placement at local businesses.
Building up the district’s special education program has paid for itself in cost-savings. When Tomko started, Belleville sent 130 students with disabilities out of district for education services, which cost more than $100,000 annually, Kline said. Now, just 55 students go out of district for these services. And in quite a turnaround, special education students from other districts now take classes and get other support in Belleville.
Within two years of Tomko’s tenure, the district went from failing the state’s districtwide comprehensive accountability system, New Jersey’s school district review process, to being named among the state’s high-performing districts, even doubling its scores in financial management and instruction.
How do we get kids back to normal? You can’t do that through educational reinforcement alone. You have to create big new opportunities, not the same opportunities.
From crisis to opportunity
Ironically, Belleville’s response to its internal financial crisis put it in a better position to weather the pandemic disruptions.
“We’ve had the foresight to do a lot of things before they became mandated,” from 1-to-1 laptop programs, online lesson materials, to campus mental health centers. Teachers were given more time during the week for individual student tutoring, Tomko said.
“We’d even worked on air quality and had better air filtration before COVID hit, because when we got here, the facilities were falling apart, so we were replacing things like HVAC systems,” he continued. “We didn’t foresee the trauma coming with COVID, but we were so far ahead that it allowed us to flourish while other people were trying to catch up.”
Tomko understands how much the pandemic set back students—and the urgency of returning them to the right footing.
“I have four children of my own, and I saw two of them miss milestones” during the pandemic, he said. His son graduated from high school without a ceremony in 2020, and his daughter had to forgo getting her driver’s license.
“So how do we get kids back to normal? You can’t do that through educational reinforcement alone. … You have to create big new opportunities, not the same opportunities.”
Tomko found them. He launched a massive expansion of in-person preschool in 2020, just as many families were scrambling for early-education services. The new campus and classrooms, funded in part from state early-learning grants, boosted Essex County’s preschool enrollment from less than 1 in 10 eligible students to nearly 9 in 10. Those gains also helped buffer the district’s K-12 enrollment, which has risen from 4,477 in 2018-19 to 4,701 in 2021-22 as statewide public school enrollment dropped.
Tomko intends to expand educational opportunities even more this year, with the planned launch of an early-education “cradle” program to connect new parents with health and educational services for infants and toddlers. And, at the high school level, he hopes to beef up medical-career studies in response to rising student interest during the pandemic.
Community partnerships are key
To build public trust for the district’s recovery plans, Tomko launched Community Outreach Program in Education—dubbed COPE—which aimed to tie school improvements to tangible community benefits. It expanded career-education partnerships with local hospitals that extend beyond the students studying health fields. The aesthetician program, for example, teamed up with the local Clara Maass Medical Center to allow students to provide hair and beauty services to recovering patients, while also practicing for their end-of-year cosmetology licensing exams.
Maintaining constant connection to the community is vital to keeping public and parent support.
“We have all these opportunities, but this isn’t an overnight effort,” Tomko said. “It’s really not about the leader. You know, we all have an expertise … so I have to listen to the people I serve.”
Dana Lugo, president of the parent-educator organization at School 7, said Tomko ensured parents and local organizations were included in the district’s plans. The school is getting more than $2 million in new electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems upgrades, as well as roof repairs.
“He always has an open-door policy whenever you need his feedback on something or loves to hear ideas that would benefit the school to make sure our students get the best education that they need,” Lugo said.
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A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Transforming A School District, One Relationship At a Time