By Ron Leir
Richard Tomko came up unlucky in the race for state senate in the 24th district in 2013. As the Democratic nominee, he lost to GOP incumbent Steven Oroho by about a 2-1 margin.
But last Thursday, Tomko, 42, a product of Queen of Peace High School, North Arlington, emerged from a field of nearly 50 candidates as the pick for Belleville’s chief schools administrator.
At a special meeting, the Belleville Board of Education voted 5-1 to appoint Tomko to the post, starting Feb. 15, giving him a 3-year-plus contract running through June 30, 2018, at $167,500 a year, with an opportunity for annual merit increases of up to 14.99% after his first year of service.
The only dissenting vote came from Ralph Vellon, who was elected to the board this past November. (Board member John Rivera did not attend the meeting but later told The Observer he was caught up in work and couldn’t get away but added that he felt that Tomko was “one of the stronger candidates” and felt he was “fully qualified as superintendent.”)
Vellon gave no public explanation for his vote but, when asked later, he told The Observer that, “We’ve had a lot of problems before with political superintendents. Mr. Tomko is very political and the candidate I wanted was non-political. (He declined to name that candidate because that person may be seeking another post elsewhere.)
Asked to elaborate, Vellon said: “Mr. Tomko ran for political office, for the state senate, and I feel that’s a diversion from his huge responsibilities as superintendent of schools.”
Nonetheless, Vellon said he would offer his support to Tomko as the Belleville schools chief for the sake of furthering the education of children in the district.
A press release issued by Tom Egan, the state monitor assigned to Belleville schools, and Strategic Education Advantage, the board’s search consultant, said that Tomko “was selected from a pool of 47 candidates of which 17 were experienced superintendents of schools that came from over six states and the District of Columbia.”
It took the consulting firm, led by former state Education Commissioner William Librera, four months to complete the search process, the release said.
Belleville BOE senior member Peter Zangari was quoted in the release as saying that, “… I believe that Dr. Tomko will provide stability and leadership to the Belleville school district and will be a great leader ….”
Tomko, who has spent the past 19 years as an educational administrator, is currently superintendent of schools in Elmwood Park and has served in that job since 2010 and, before that, he was the district’s interim assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, high school principal and middle school principal. Prior, according to his professional resume, he was athletic director for Dunellen public schools and assistant A.D. and sports information director for Queen of Peace High School where he taught various subjects from 1994 to 1999. He got his teaching and school administration degrees from Seton Hall University.
Tomko, his wife Jamie and their two children live in Sparta in Sussex County.
Concern about Tomko’s administrative credentials was raised by public speaker Vincent Frantantoni, who wondered if the board’s confidence in his leadership could be misplaced, given that during his time in the Bergen County school district, “for two consecutive years, Elmwood park had deficits and is still under a state monitor (Egan). He was there when it occurred.”
A recently released audit has determined that Belleville schools ran up a deficit of $3.7 million for the 2013-2014 school year.
Frantantoni also questioned whether Tomko’s work as a college adjunct teacher and as a partner in an educational consulting firm could, potentially, take away time from his work in Belleville.
Tomko, who was sitting in the audience during the meeting, rose to defend his record, saying that he’s spent the last 12 years in Elmwood Park but that he “inherited the deficit” and that he “made $1 million in cuts” to help put the district on a path to recovery. Today, he added, “we have a surplus.”
Tomko said that he fully realized what it means to make a commitment to the responsibilities of schools superintendent. In past years, he said, he’s had to sacrifice family time for school-related work. “I’ve missed many of my kids’ dances – I know about dedication as a school administrator.”
Tomko got backing from Belleville BOE President Ray Kuebler who was quoted in the press release as saying that he felt Tomko “would be the best fit for Belleville as he has a proven track record of bringing financial stability and academic success in his previous district.”
Tomko’s resume mentions money problems experienced by Elmwood Park schools and says that he responded “by making immediate cuts to offset a $2.2 million deficit, working with the Board of Education on an action plan to restore financial stability to the district within several months.”
He also takes credit for enhancing technology “with the largest one-to-one Apple iPad initiative in New Jersey, providing state of the art hardware for all district teachers and students in grades 6 to 12,” along with “major increases in SAT and Advanced Placement scores,” plus “the largest graduation increase in New Jersey (11.8%)” and the fact that 82% of “economically disadvantaged” seniors “entered 2- to 4-year colleges.”