Newsmakers 2010: Waiting for ‘Superman’: Dr. Jerome PeckoWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) Superintendent Jerome Pecko can often be found walking the hallways of the city’s schools, interacting with students.
It’s what he does when the stresses and challenges of his administrative role start to distance him from the true reason for what he does. School Board President Bob Vasquez calls it Pecko’s “kid time.”
“One of the things I really like best about Dr. Pecko is he has students at the center of his thinking,” Vasquez said. “Sometimes the things we do as a board, especially financial issues, are so far removed from the students that he likes to go in and remind himself, because he believes they are why we are doing what we are doing. He has that built in. He had that when he first came to the district.”
When Pecko came from the Akron area to take the reins of TPS in August, he inherited a system with declining enrollment and a nearly $40 million deficit poised to ask voters for the largest levy in decades. A smaller levy had failed only months before, prompting TPS to cut middle-school and freshman sports, lay off crossing guards and cut bus service to state minimum levels, angering many parents. When $824,000 in extra funds were discovered days before school started, the crossing guards were hired back, but the district has shed more than 400 employees and closed Libbey High School.
When 59 percent of voters rejected November’s 7.8-mill levy, which would have raised roughly $21.6 million a year, Pecko handled the defeat with his characteristically even-keeled demeanor, conceding that voters had spoken and it was time to move on.
Pecko said TPS’s budget crisis is challenging, but he has faced similar situations before and knew what he was getting into.
Although proud of the campaign waged, he admits the defeat has been the low point of his tenure so far and wishes he would have started sooner and done more.
“Momentum was starting to build right at the end,” said Pecko, who said the school board will address in January whether to pursue another levy. “As I reflected at the time, the notion was in my head that had we gotten started a month earlier we might have been able to have been successful.”
School Board Vice President Lisa Sobecki said she understands why voters were apprehensive, but suspects Pecko had higher expectations of support for TPS.
“I think where he came from, people had always rallied behind the schools, maybe not always agreed with decisions, but had always supported public education. I think maybe it was an eye-opener for him, a disappointment for him, that maybe he didn’t see that in Toledo,” Sobecki said.
Even so, Pecko said Toledo has more interest in its school district than any other place he has served.
“That’s been very impressive to me,” Pecko said. “Everybody wants to lend a hand. Whenever I think about that, it brings a smile to my face because I think we obviously don’t have a lot of resources available to us. To have so many different organizations and agencies out in the community who have legitimate services to provide that will benefit our students, reaching out with their hands and offering to help us, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
However, Pecko said one thing that surprised him was how poor a perception many people had of the state of affairs within TPS, something he hopes to change with more transparency and dialogue with the community.
Vasquez and Sobecki both said Pecko’s heart for children is obvious. Vasquez said he watched Pecko get emotional listening to a student talk about TPS, while Sobecki said Pecko works tirelessly and sees the good in every child.
Vasquez said Pecko has a lot of patience: “I have pushed him very hard and he has never gotten angry with me,” Vasquez said. “He doesn’t react impulsively to anything.”
Pecko, who began his career teaching English at an inner-city Akron junior high before moving into administration, was offered the superintendent job in July after a 4-1 vote in which board member Larry Sykes said his vote was not against Pecko but against the search process. Pecko was the only candidate remaining after another finalist, Tom Watkins, withdrew.
Despite the challenges ahead, Pecko said he is still glad he came to Toledo.
“I am still very excited,” Pecko said. “I have a period of time to be able to demonstrate that I can help make a difference in the school district and that’s what I’m focused on.”