Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Obviously, he's kept a very low profile"

From Bill Schackner and Mary Niederberger writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Ron Tomalis stepped aside as state education secretary 14 months ago, he landed what seemed like a full-time assignment in a state struggling to boost college access and curb ever-rising tuition prices.

As special adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett for higher education, Mr. Tomalis was tasked with "overseeing, implementing and reviewing" the recommendations made by the Governor's Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education.

Despite the state's fiscal crisis, the former secretary was allowed to keep his Cabinet-level salary of $139,542 plus benefits and -- initially, at least -- work from home. At the time, state Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller explained that the newly created job did not require an office, and Mr. Tomalis "is a professional and doesn't need to 'check in' each day."
The records produced included a work calendar showing weeks with little or no activity [ click here] ...  [P]hone logs averaging barely over a phone call a day over 12 months and a total of five emails produced by Mr. Tomalis. The state was not able to provide any reimbursement records suggesting Mr. Tomalis traveled the state in support of his work.

Beyond the records, a number of key players in higher education said in interviews they had little or no contact with Mr. Tomalis in his advisory role, for which the state says there is no written job description.

Jennifer Branstetter, Mr. Corbett's director of policy, said she has spoken with the governor and believes he is satisfied with Mr. Tomalis' job performance. "I think the governor is pleased overall with the advice and oversight he has been giving."
A copy of Mr. Tomalis' work calendar from June 1, 2013 to June 1, 2014, released by the department, shows a number of weeks and months with little scheduled activity, including 20 weeks that appear to have no work-related appointments.

Phone logs showed 406 calls, of which 57 percent were two minutes or less. The last four digits for all but a handful of the phone calls were redacted.

Asked for his work-related correspondence as adviser, the department produced five emails written by Mr. Tomalis -- the first of which was dated Feb. 24, 2014, nine months after he landed the job.

Two of the five emails involved registering for a conference. Two others dealt with an invitation for a department representative to serve on the governing board of an education and business initiative in India; and a fifth email involved a clarification the former secretary sought about the number of higher education institutions in Pennsylvania.
A brief aside: sometimes the location of the line between professional development and career advancement is debatable. This is particularly true with conferences, which many attendees treat as combination paid vacation and exclusive job fair. Tomalis' sinecure was incredibly sweet but not all that stable. He did next-to-nothing for his six figure salary and a good portion of that next-to-nothing appears to have been finding ways to have the state pay for his job search.
A number of key players in the state's higher education arena said they have not been contacted by Mr. Tomalis since he was named special adviser, including Sen. Mike Folmer a Lebanon County Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Education Committee.
Among the K-12 issues that Mr. Tomalis handled were charter school matters such as arranging testing sites for cyber charter students. [Acting Education Secretary Carol Dumaresq] said Mr. Tomalis was instrumental in reviving the governor's schools.
Schackner and Niederberger did an excellent job reporting on this story, but if I had been their editor, I definitely would have immediately followed Dumaresq's comments about the governor's schools with these paragraphs which can be found toward the end of the article.
In addition to a lack of activities on his calendar, it appears Mr. Tomalis did not participate in some listed activities, including the Governor's School for the Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in July 2013.

Barry Luokkala, teaching professor of physics and the school's program director, said Mr. Tomalis was a big supporter of governor's schools but added that he had not heard from Mr. Tomalis since he stepped down as education secretary and could recall no such visit.
Luokkala wasn't alone in his "Ron who?" reaction.

"I am not able to find any information regarding Mr. Tomalis' interactions with anyone at the university in the capacity you describe," said Annemarie Mountz, a spokeswoman for Penn State University.

"There has been no contact between Tomalis and anyone here," said Ken Service, a University of Pittsburgh spokesman.
Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission on Community Colleges, said she was not aware of any meetings held by Mr. Tomalis that involved the commission staff.

Keith New, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, said he too was unable to find any indication Mr. Tomalis had interacted with PHEAA since becoming the governor's higher education adviser.

Ms. Dumaresq said the governor's office directed that Mr. Tomalis delay discussions with Pitt and Penn State regarding performance funding until the new leadership of both schools was in place.

When told that Pitt and Penn State -- among other key institutions -- reported no dealings whatsoever with Mr. Tomalis, she replied: "I'm not sure how to respond. ... I don't know what is sufficient. I know that none is certainly not sufficient, but again, I can tell you that he has been talking with staff here and working on programs."
"Obviously, he's kept a very low profile," she added. "Maybe that should change."
While the state could provide no written examples of Mr. Tomalis' work product, Ms. Dumaresq said the initiatives advanced are evidence of Mr. Tomalis' work. 
"The important thing is whether in fact people are working and working hard and producing," she said. "And Ron is."
Lots of familiar elements here, starting with the last line. "The important thing" is one of the standard defenses when looting of the educational till is uncovered. The very fact that you're discussing mere money suggests that you care more about your pocketbook than you do about children. No mention is made of the worthwhile programs in the system that desperately need that money and the apologist never bothers to explain why the contribution of the looter is of any special value.

For some reason, this defense seems far more acceptable in the field of education (especially among movement reformers) than it does in fields like the military, infrastructure and law enforcement. We recently had the current Michigan governor and one of his predecessors tell us that voters shouldn't care about massive looting in their state's charter school industry because those schools are doing good work (despite evidence that Michigan's charters are, on average, doing worse than its public schools).

Perhaps I'm missing some obvious recent counter-examples but I have trouble imagining a similar responses from top government officials if a military contractor or construction company was caught engaging in this level of self-dealing, overcharging, graft and fraud. In the rest of the public sector, the standard responses to scandal seem to be

"Reports are exaggerated."

"We're going to investigate this thoroughly."

"A few bad players..."

"We're really sorry and we'll see that this never happens again."

We can question their sincerity, but in most parts of the public sector, officials recognize the need to at least humor us; "You shouldn't care that you're being robbed blind." is not considered acceptable.

This story also illustrates the bizarre inconsistency of attitudes toward accountability in education. Movement reformers are pushing to deny teachers even the most basic of job security while holding them responsible for things they have almost no control over, but this accountability is inversely proportional to position. When it looked like LAUSD's John Deasy was about to lose his job (after nearly bankrupting the district but before powerful friends came to his rescue), Deasy actually suggested a consulting deal similar to the one Tomalis got.  Keep in mind, Deasy has spent most of his time in office complaining about the hardship of having to reassign certain teachers to clerical duties rather than firing them.

Accountability is for little people.

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