PA Senate Education Committee and Election Year. Coincidence?

When I became chair of the [Pennsylvania] Senate Education Committee, I decided to focus on students and their parents. If education is truly about children, they should always be the focus.

However, most of my time as Chair has very little to do with students or parents. Rather, it’s mostly about money. And, it’s often about the employment of adults.

This unfortunate fact was again demonstrated by the continued employment of Ron Tomalis after he was replaced as Education Secretary. The Governor decided to make him a special advisor on higher education at the same $139,906 he had received as Secretary. Critics said this was to boost his annual pension by about $6,918 (to $34,592).

There have also been questions about his work projects. During his tenure as special advisor, he reportedly sent just five emails, had a nearly empty work calendar, no voice mail, and phone logs that averaged little more than a phone call a day. Critics said he did no work.

Although he resigned at the end of August, complaints were filed with various agencies, including the state Ethics Commission, Auditor General, Attorney General, and the U.S. Department of Education. Each of these entities was specifically established to conduct in-depth probes when questions arise. However, it takes time to carefully sort out the facts and render fair and objective findings. A rush to judgment serves no one.

Because my “Promise to Pennsylvania” is built upon government openness, transparency, and accountability, I asked the Education Department to demonstrate that Mr. Tomalis was not a “ghost employee.” They shared information with me that was subsequently released to the public showing the times he was in their building.

While I continue to have questions about all of this, I also question the motivations of those who are now calling for a public hearing of the Senate Education Committee: where were you five years ago when I publically questioned such agreements?

Beginning in 2009 (i.e., before I was Chair), I spent well over a year probing a multitude of Pennsylvania Department of Education contracts. This endeavor included numerous Right to Know requests to the Department and to each of the Commonwealth’s 29 Intermediate Units.

I learned a former Secretary of Education had a paid driver. State moneys were used to lobby members of the General Assembly. A number of employees left the Department and subsequently received IU contracts – which included compensation and state benefits with health care and pensions (I thought independent contractors paid for their own benefits).

In all, I identified 36 questionable contracts. My office spoke with the Auditor General’s Office about these agreements. Limited legislation was passed requiring more reporting on such contracts. Anonymous letters were sent to my office urging me to continue my probe.

However, no one cared – until now: an Election Year. Coincidence? You decide.