Role remains ambiguous for Tom Corbett's higher education adviser, Ron Tomalis



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."

Now, more than a year later, records obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through requests under the state Right-to-Know Law raise questions about how much time the governor's office required Mr. Tomalis to spend on those duties.

The records produced included a work calendar showing weeks with little or no activity (explore it below or click here), phone 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."

Ms. Branstetter said that monitoring the special adviser's progress is largely the role of the Education Department. She noted that for reasons including a lack of funding to implement some of the commission's objectives, Mr. Tomalis' role shifted. Initially, he "was working on the recommendations on the post-secondary education commission, [but his role] has evolved into one that is not only working with that but also finding a bridge between higher education and K-12."

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.

The Education Department withheld two other emails, calling them pre-decisional and exempt from Right-to-Know disclosure. It did not say if Mr. Tomalis wrote them or was the recipient. The department also provided 10 emails that either were addressed to Mr. Tomalis or copied to him from department officials and others, the earliest of which was dated five months into his tenure.

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.

Asked about the records, and Mr. Tomalis' work output and lack of visibility, the Education Department initially offered to make him and Acting Education Secretary Carol Dumaresq available to answer questions. But later, Mr. Eller added a stipulation that the two would participate only if the agency chose the reporter, a condition the Post-Gazette deemed unacceptable.

Still later, Ms. Dumaresq agreed to an unrestricted interview by herself by reporters selected by the newspaper.

She said Mr. Tomalis works on average 40 hours a week and meets regularly with staff and others. She said a portion of his duties -- assigned by her -- now involve K-12 issues in addition to his original higher education responsibilities.

Asked about the small number of emails and limited phone work, she said they could reflect the former secretary's preference for face-to-face dealings.

"I can't explain why there is nothing on the calendar," she said. "I do know when I'm here -- Ron's office is about four doors down -- pretty much every time I'm in the office, he's in his office."

The secretary said when she took over Aug. 25, she required Mr. Tomalis to begin reporting to work at the Education Department headquarters in Harrisburg. "I like my people to be here," she explained.

She said Mr. Tomalis picked up the additional K-12 duties when it became clear last fall there would be no money in Mr. Corbett's upcoming 2014-15 state budget to initiate performance funding for postsecondary schools, which had been a key recommendation of the governor's commission.

The performance funding was intended to reward schools in such areas as controlling tuition increases, boosting student access and responding to workforce needs.

Among the K-12 issues that Mr. Tomalis handled were charter school matters such as arranging testing sites for cyber charter students. Ms. Dumaresq said Mr. Tomalis was instrumental in reviving the governor's schools.

At the initial meeting of the postsecondary education commission in March 2012, Mr. Corbett said, "We really are on the precipice of a whole new way of doing things, and I'd like to see Pennsylvania be on the front of it and not on the back of it."

The 31 commission members from education and business made their recommendations in November of that year, most focused on making postsecondary education more accessible and affordable.

It's unclear how many of the recommendations have been carried out and what Mr. Tomalis' involvement was.

But the Department of Education released a list of accomplishments of the commission's goals, which included the creation of websites for education and career planning, outlining how courses transfer between schools and researching employment, wages and career paths. It also cites, among other things, the creation of the Pennsylvania Jump$tart Coalition, a volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to improving financial literacy among Pennsylvania students.

Asked how Mr. Tomalis interacted with them as adviser over the last year, and on what issues, some key institutions came up blank, including the state's flagship public university.

"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.

Tuition at Pitt and Penn State are highest among public universities nationwide, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey, a distinction both schools blame in large part on the state's long-standing rank near the bottom among states in aid to public higher education.

Leaders of both universities served on the governor's postsecondary education commission.

Mr. Tomalis did interact at least three times by phone or face-to-face with officials of the State System of Higher Education, which oversees Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, including California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities.

He approached State System executive vice chancellor Peter Garland with questions about the system's decadelong practice of awarding performance funds, said Kenn Marshall, a State System spokesman. He said Mr. Tomalis also discussed international education and initiatives involving Team Pennsylvania Foundation, a nonprofit collaboration of government and the private sector. "He has been here for a couple of meetings," Mr. Marshall said. "I can't tell you exactly how many."

Mr. Tomalis' calendar indicates a discussion with Don Francis, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania in October 2013. Mr. Francis recalled seeking the meeting, and that both men discussed matters including performance funding.

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."

She cited as examples of his work various articulation agreements between institutions and working with PHEAA to create the Ready to Succeed scholarships included in the state budget. She said Mr. Tomalis was also a driving force behind an initiative in India, focused on education and recruiting students to Pennsylvania.

"Obviously, he's kept a very low profile," she added. "Maybe that should change."

Read more: Gov. Corbett says Ron Tomalis is not a 'ghost employee'

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.

The calendar last year also mentioned two gatherings of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one in July in Wisconsin and another in November in Virginia. However, a representative of the organization said it had no records indicating Mr. Tomalis participated in either.

Mr. Tomalis' calendar also noted two months of Sunday Penn State board calls lasting from 5 to 6 p.m. The university said there were no board calls on those dates.

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."

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter @BschacknerPG. Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. Karen Langley contributed.


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