BRIDGEWATER, NJ - In the middle of the lockdown at the height of the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Thomas Ficarra received a call that the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District was seeking an interim superintendent after former superintendent Russell Lazovick was set to leave the district June 30.
Ficarra said he decided to throw his hat into the ring for the position, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic and what would be happening with schools in the fall.
“I was, like everyone, getting a bit claustrophobic,” he said. “People in leadership at this time are in the moment, and I thought it would be an exciting experience.”
“Tiring, but exciting,” he added.
Ficarra was appointed interim superintendent of the district in April, with a start date of July 1, right after the governor released the state guidelines for reopening of schools.
Starting his career as a social studies teacher for middle and high school students in the Elizabeth school district, Ficarra has risen in the ranks over the years to serve in all higher positions. He served as vice principal, principal and assistant superintendent in the Elizabeth district, where he himself grew up.
From there, he became superintendent in the Mt. Arlington school district, which was kindergarten through eighth grade.
“That was the career trajectory,” he said.
From there, Ficarra said, he became superintendent in the Morris Township schools in 2002, where he stayed until his retirement in 2014.
“In my working career, I have only been in three school districts,” he said. “I grew up in Elizabeth and worked in the local community. When I wanted to become a superintendent, I looked around for openings.”
Ficarra said he made the decision when he was in college to pursue education.
“I liked ideas, I liked books,” he said. “I grew up in a working class area, and the professions I saw around me were doctors, lawyers and teachers.”
“Teaching was what I felt most suited my personality,” he added.
Ficarra earned his bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University, in New York, got his master’s degree in education – along with his certifications for superintendent and other supervisor positions – and then earned his doctorate from Drew University, focusing on literature and humanities.
“I had the requirements for education, and I wanted to enjoy pursuing an area of study outside of where I work,” he said. “I had the good fortune of being around smart people who all had professional development, and I thought I would do a completely different course of study.”
And in his career, Ficarra said, he has just taken each step, one at a time.
“A position would open up, and I thought, I could do that, let me try,” he said. “My goals evolved over the years.”
After he retired in 2014, Ficarra said, he thought he would spend his time with his hobbies, sailing, researching, reading, traveling. But after a while, he realized they were just hobbies.
“I had a sense that my real life was being in schools,” he said.
Ficarra returned to school as the interim superintendent in Hamilton Township, where he stayed for 22 months, and then did another 22 months in the South Orange/Maplewood school district.
Interim superintendents are only allowed to serve for two years, by state statute.
After his second stint, Ficarra said, he assumed he would return to retirement.
“Then in the middle of the lockdown, I got a call about Bridgewater-Raritan,” he said.
Aside from his complete focus on the COVID situation, Ficarra said he doesn’t currently have any goals for the district for however long he stays on as interim.
“As someone new to the district, I don’t come in and decide what I want to do to the district,” he said. “The obvious goal now is how to open.”
“Once we find out the new normal, the board will meet with me for a series of goals to achieve in the near future,” he added.
And once that happens, he said, he will have had time to get a better understanding of the district as a whole.
“I have been fortunate that each time I have been interim, I have started at the beginning of a year,” he said. “All the functions of the district funnel through the opening. It goes through a funnel of two months to get it set, and you get an interesting, close-up view of how the district operates in that intense period of time.”
As the district is working on materials, organizing schedules, checking on technology and more work, whether in a pandemic or not, Ficarra said he has the opportunity to interact with all aspects of the administration, which is a good thing.
“By the end of July, I feel like I know everyone,” he said.
Moving forward, Ficarra said, his goal is to bring out the best in all the people in the district, and tap that potential to put toward a quality education in a safe and healthy environment for the students.
“We have such a quality group of people here,” he said.
Ficarra said he knows he can’t accomplish any of that in a vacuum.
“The more you include the people who carry out the decisions in the context of achieving goals, the better,” he said. “I like to think of it as collective intelligence.”
“Essentially, I don’t believe the superintendent can sit with a small group and think for the whole organization,” he added. “We have to talk to those implementing the initiatives.”
Ficarra said the district will have the most success when everyone is involved.
“We get ideas and energy from the ground up,” he said. “I want to hear all perspectives. It has to be a true collaboration.”