State audit finds special adviser on higher education 'did little work'
October 7, 2015 12:00 AM
The auditor general said he found scant evidence of work by former special adviser on higher education Ron Tomalis.
Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette
Eugene DePasquale blasts the Department of Education for lack of oversight on advisers and help for academically struggling districts.
By Mary Niederberger and Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A special adviser on higher education who did no work, a Basic Education Master Plan that had not been updated in 16 years, and no effort to help the majority of the state’s struggling schools were the major findings of two audits performed at the state Department of Education by the office of state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
The long-awaited performance audits were presented by Mr. DePasquale in a news conference Tuesday during which he blasted the department for its lack of oversight on advisers and assistants and its inaction in helping what he called 561 “poor performing” schools.
He also took the state Board of Education to task for failing to update the commonwealth’s Basic Education Master Plan every five years as mandated by the state School Code and described the education department as “uncooperative” during the course of much of the audit.
The audit covered July 1, 2010, to Aug. 1, 2015, but the work took place largely during the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett. Mr. DePasquale said the lack of cooperation seemed to stem from department leadership, rather than Mr. Corbett’s office, and improved when Gov. Tom Wolfe took office in January.
The auditor general said he found scant evidence of work by former special adviser on higher education Ron Tomalis, who maintained his Cabinet-level status and salary of $139,542 after he resigned as state secretary of education to become special adviser on June 1, 2013.
Mr. Tomalis resigned in August 2014, weeks after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported he had a largely empty work calendar, phone logs averaging just over a call a day, no written job description and a total of five emails written during his first year as special adviser.
“I think it is probably the nicest thing you could say about them (the Department of Education) that they are not a good guardian of taxpayer funds when you have all of these other cuts, when you have 500-some odd schools that by their own standards are not receiving passing grades, and yet a special adviser gets a $140,000 salary and we find 72 percent of the time that his parking pass was waved in there was literally zero evidence that he did anything once he got there,” Mr. DePasquale said.
The audit found Mr. Tomalis had no job description and that for the first five months of his adviser role, the department did not monitor his work activities or whereabouts.
Mr. DePasquale said he found it “absolutely astounding” that there was not a more extensive electronic record of Mr. Tomalis in the department. Mr. Tomalis could not be reached for comment.
The auditor general suggested Mr. Tomalis could have been used to help the state Board of Education work on a revision of the Basic Education Master Plan. He said the current 16-year-old plan was enacted just as the charter school law went into effect, but it doesn’t address charter issues.
Board of Education Chairman Larry Wittig said in his audit response that additional responsibilities given to the board prevented it from updating the comprehensive plan.
Mr. DePasquale said the audit looked at 3,000 schools and found that 814 — more than one quarter — had School Performance Profile scores that fell below 70, which was the score that former Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq designated as passing. Yet 561 of those schools received no help from the education department, because under its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, Pennsylvania is required to assist and demand corrective action only from poor-performing Title I schools, which receive money because of low-income children.
“Rather than PDE being proactive in providing substantial assistance to improve the academic performance of all of these academically challenged schools, the department seemed to be doing the bare minimum to meet federal requirements,” Mr. DePasquale said.
Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, in his audit response, said the report covered a time under the previous administration when school funds were scarce and that Mr. Wolf hopes to find ways to assist “academically low-performing schools.”
Ms. Dumaresq, who served as acting education secretary from August 2013 until January, said she had not yet looked at the audit.
“I am retired,” she said. “I really believe that once you’re out of office, that chapter of your life is done. I’m just moving on.”
Staff writer Karen Langley contributed. Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590. On Twitter @MaryNied. Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977. On Twitter Bschackner@PG
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