Transforming a School District, One Relationship at a Time
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.
Dr. Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., visits science teacher Paul Aiello’s Medical Academy Field Experience class on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The Medical Academy’s class uses Anatamoge tables, an anatomy visualization system that allows students to garner a deeper, comprehensive understanding of the human body and medical tools to prepare them for careers in the medical field.
“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.
Richard Tomko, center, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., visits The Grove, one of the BPS 18-21-year old Life Skills Program houses on Tuesday, January 10, 2023 with Ryan Kline, Director of Special Services, left, and Caleb Rhodes, Belleville High School Principal, right. The Grove is one of two Life Skills houses right outside of the high school where students are provided with life skills in a real-life setting.
Richard Tomko visits The Grove, one of two single-family homes that have been converted into educational centers, where students with disabilities, between the ages of 18 and 21, learn life skills.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
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.
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.
Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., entertains students in Ms. Geralyn Latza’s pre-K classroom as they hand him various interactive classroom materials as he makes classroom visits at the Hornblower Early Childhood Center on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. One of Dr. Tomko’s main initiatives as superintendent has been to grow Belleville Public School’s “Preschool Universe,” which has been largely successful since the opening of the Hornblower Early Childhood Center in 2020. District enrollment in the “Preschool Universe” was at 7.8% in the 2018-19 school year, and is now at 86.7% for the 2022-23 school year.
Richard Tomko plays with students at the Hornblower Early Childhood Center, which opened in 2020. Tomko launched the early-childhood program in the early days of the pandemic as many parents were scrambling for childcare.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
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.
Richard Tomko, center, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., visits The Grove, one of the BPS 18-21-year old Life Skills Program houses, where students participate in a cooking lesson on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The Grove is one of two Life Skills houses right outside of the high school where students are provided with life skills in a real-life setting.
Richard Tomko meets with students at The Grove, who were participating in a cooking lesson. The Grove is one of two educational centers where students with disabilities learn life skills.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
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.”
“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.”
Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J. spins Autumn Griffenkranz, 3, and Noah Moursi, 3, around on playground equipment at the Hornblower Early Childhood Center on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. One of Dr. Tomko’s main initiatives as superintendent has been to grow Belleville Public School’s “Preschool Universe,” which has been largely successful since the opening of the Hornblower Early Childhood Center in 2020. District enrollment in the “Preschool Universe” was at 7.8% in the 2018-19 school year, and is now at 86.7% for the 2022-23 school year.
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