SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Approximately 30 residents, including parents, teachers, board of education members and students, gathered Tuesday night in the high school media center for an informational meeting centered on the district’s current search for a permanent principal. 

According to a district email, the March 3 meeting, along with an online survey, were conducted in an effort to provide ‘feedback’ to ‘help create a shared vision of priorities’ in its search for a permanent high school principal. 

“Your feedback will help us create a shared vision of priorities for the high school principal candidate and will significantly shape the applicant criteria,” stated the email, informing residents that the online survey (SPHS Community Survey - Principal Searchwould be open through Friday, March 6. 

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The need for a new, permanent principal at South Plainfield High School (SPHS) arose last June as a result of Ronnie Spring’s resignation. At that time, Robert Diehl, former principal of Roosevelt Elementary School, applied and was named interim principal of SPHS effective July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020. 

At a Jan. 22 meeting, the South Plainfield Board of Education (SPBOE) voted 8-0 in favor of retaining the consulting firm Tomko, Tomko and Associates for the purpose of conducting a ‘personnel search…in an amount not to exceed $3,975.’ 

Last month, a job listing for the principal position was posted with the application window closing March 3 and, that same evening, an informational stakeholder meeting to ‘seek community input on the search process’ was held. 

“Tonight is to get the feedback on who the candidate or what the candidate should be to lead this district into the future,” Richard Tomko, Ph.D., a partner and lead search consultant with the Sparta-based firm who also currently serves as superintendent of the Belleville School District, told those in attendance. 

“We pride ourselves on helping districts use our services and abilities to recruit individuals based on some of your data to make very informed decisions so that your district moves forward,” he said, adding. “I have no stake in this game except to get you the best candidate no matter who it is – that’s my job – and the only ways we can do that is by getting feedback from all of you so we can put together a profile and continue our interviews.”

In his presentation, Tomko provided information on the ‘transparency’ of the search process and discussed the ‘rigid timeline’ set forth by the district. The application window closed March 3 and, currently, the firm is working to compile data from the online survey and the written, anonymous responses to more than a half-dozen open-ended questions asked at the meeting into a screening rubric; questions centered around what makes South Plainfield Schools great, how residents know the principal cares about the climate of the school and community, how does the principal of SPHS motivate students to excel in academics and extracurricular activities, when the principal comes in to observe a teacher, what is he looking for, how does the principal handle questions and concerns, and more. 

The next step, said Tomko, will be a preliminary screening and vetting of candidates; applicants will be graded pursuant to the rubric and placed into one of three tiers with the highest viable candidates – those who possess the qualifications specified by the district - placed in Tier A. Confidential initial interviews will be held with those candidates on or around April 1 followed by second interviews shortly thereafter. Final vetting and a reference check are scheduled for mid-April with the final candidate interviewing with Tomko, Superintendent Dr. Noreen Lishak, and a board committee prior to being recommended to the full board. 

“Hopefully, at the end of April [or in time for an] April board meeting, there will be a final candidate so that person will know 60 days out that they can start July 1,” he said. “It’s a very rigid timeline and we are on track.” 

Tomko also opened the meeting up to questions, which included but weren’t limited to, his personal qualifications, why a search company was retained for this position, would the SPHS student population be polled, and if someone from within had an advantage, among others. 

“I do not talk about any personnel issues; I am not here to answer those questions or get that feedback. If someone here says ‘this person should have it,’ or if 10 people say it should be this person and another 10 say it should be that person, that information does not go back to the district,” said Tomko at the beginning of the meeting. “That is not how this works.”

Although the purpose of the meeting was to gain feedback on what – not who – would make a good principal, many who spoke did so in support of Diehl, including SPHS English teacher and longtime resident Donna Egan who read a letter that stated, in part, that she feels ‘the most important aspect of this search is that it is totally unnecessary.’ 

“We already have the best choice in Mr. Diehl who is serving as interim principal,” said Egan, listing several reasons why she feels he is qualified for the position and the positive changes he has made over the current school year. “Mr. Diehl is supporting our students and the teachers and helping students be prepared for life and college and beyond and isn’t that what we want for our students? …Mr. Diehl is the exact person we need for South Plainfield High School.” 

Diana Joffe, president of the South Plainfield Education Association and a teacher at SPHS, stated that one of the things she feels is most important in ‘the well-being’ of the high school is ‘continuity.’ “We finally have someone who we really love and who loves us and is doing a phenomenal,” said Joffe.

Tony Massaro, an Edison resident and former SPHS principal who personally hired Diehl as a social studies teacher back in 1999, spoke as an ‘interested observer who did the job for a number of years.’ 

“You’ve put a lot of emphasis on transparency, a great amount of emphasis on data, and my question of those two things is that data and transparency to me is not an end in and of itself. It is a goal and a tool to get to the right place,” said Massaro, adding, “I don’t know how you can get to the right place based on external data without looking at the data that is available to you right here, right now by a quick check of the person who’s doing the jobs personnel file. I will bet you dollars to donuts if you look at that right now he is outstanding in every category and I want to know is that going to be considered in his portfolio in total value.”

Tomko reiterated that he would not ‘discuss any specific personnel,’ and stated that it comes back to ‘transparency’ and the board ‘allowing’ him to ‘open this up and see what candidates we have.’ “At the end of the day, if that candidate goes to the top…whomever it is, that candidate will get to share their experiences,” he said. 

Brianna Manz, a sophomore at SPHS, asked if the students would be asked to take part in a survey similar to the one sent out to parents and Tomko stated that the initial plan was to poll ‘a select group’ and he will talk to the superintendent. 

Additionally, junior Gianna Glover stated that she feels ‘a lot of students are looking for an administrator that cares for[their] emotional health’ and agreed with Joffe that continuity is important. 

“If Mr. Diehl stays next year, we will have him for two years back-to-back; it will start mending itself together. Breaking that would not help the students in the long run,” said Gianna. 

“If an individual is an internal candidate – no matter whom it is – and they are the candidate that fits this profile, he or she will receive the recommendation and shouldn’t have a problem [getting] to the top… If you are all supporting someone…than you shouldn’t be worried about it if they are a stellar candidate,” said Tomko.

“The fact of the matter is that we don’t understand why we have to search for what we already have,” said Sandy Doyon, vice president of SPEA and a teacher at Kennedy School. 

According to Tomko, in the end, the final decision on who will be the next principal of South Plainfield High School is not his to make. “I just make the recommendation of what we found; the superintendent makes the final recommendation on to the board which gets to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he said.

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