Jerome Pecko receives well wishes from employee Julie Fischer in the hall of the Thurgood Marshall Administration Building on his last day at work as superintendent of Toledo Public Schools.
Jerome Pecko, ever subdued, went about the daily grind Tuesday of a public school administrator. He had meetings with board members scheduled and plans for a Head Start bid to consider, and a call to tech support for computer help.
Of course, with only hours left in his tenure as TPS superintendent, the tech question was somewhat unusual. How do I take all my personal files with me?
Mr. Pecko’s contract with the district doesn’t run out until July 31, but his tenure at TPS effectively ended Tuesday.
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With his Old Orchard house sold and a protege ready to succeed him, he plans to use vacation days and head back with his wife to Barberton, Ohio.
It’s sort of a kick start to retirement.
Hired in July, 2010, to replace John Foley, the longtime educator had previously been superintendent of the Springfield and Barberton systems in northeast Ohio’s Summit County and an educator in the Akron City Schools.
On Toledo’s political radar, Mr. Pecko, 67, flew decidedly low. If former TPS superintendent Eugene Sanders was a cruising jet while in office, Mr. Pecko was a crop duster. He had an understated leadership style, more of a quiet administrator with a strong passion for kids than a firebrand advocate who could deftly navigate the political jungle.
Now, with his career winding down, Mr. Pecko doesn’t plan to change. He chuckled at the suggestion he run for political office.
“I would never do that,” he said. “I have no desire for politics.”
He has humbler plans.
Maybe help Barberton schools. Maybe volunteer with the Red Cross. If they’ll take him, he said.
At least in the halls of the Thurgood Marshall Building, district headquarters, Mr. Pecko was a popular boss. Some staff took to calling him “Pops,” a reference to his grandfather-esque persona.
In many ways, that persona carried over to his work as superintendent. Much more a mentor and elder statesman than galvanizing leader, Mr. Pecko assembled a team of young cabinet members and groomed them as leaders. Assistant Superintendent Romules Durant, one of those cabinet members, will take over Aug. 1 as Mr. Pecko’s interim replacement.
As chief academic officer, Jim Gault served as Mr. Pecko’s second-in-command. He said he thought Mr. Pecko was the right person at the right time for TPS. His experience, the fact he was an outsider to Toledo, and his understated leadership style likely helped in some of the district’s overhaul, changes that may have been harder if the superintendent had been more prominent and a lightning rod for criticism.
Brian Murphy, the district’s other assistant superintendent, said that while some superintendents might have spent more time in front of cameras, Mr. Pecko spent more time in classrooms. And Mr. Murphy echoed what many who have worked for Mr. Pecko have said: Whatever else you think of him, Mr. Pecko’s character is hard to question.
“I never met anyone who operates with more integrity and honesty as Dr. Pecko,” Mr. Murphy said. “He is such a genuine person.”
Take, for example, revelations last year that TPS staff manipulated attendance data, after reports in Columbus of similar activity. The practice was a holdover from previous administrations, and when Mr. Pecko learned of it, he stopped it and reported it.
While the staff he worked with most closely may have liked him, Mr. Pecko’s tenure wasn’t without its failures. He never led a successful levy campaign. Test scores remained stagnant. As with most TPS superintendents, he also had his share of battles with the board. He called his relationship with his five bosses “very interesting,” a description that came with a chuckle.
Mr. Pecko said he wanted a contract extension, but only if he had board support. Board members have declined to discuss whether they offered him an extension. For his part, Mr. Pecko took the high road. Even on his last day, he wouldn’t criticize the board, instead saying their fault may be that they are “very passionate people.”
“Overall, I don’t think we’ve lost respect for each other,” he said.
Mr. Pecko’s time in TPS was one of change. He oversaw the district’s “transformation plan,” an overhaul that included a switch from middle and elementary schools to K-8 buildings, an approach he feels will eventually lead to significant academic improvements. The switch has saved the district significant dollars during a time of sharp cuts to state and federal aid.
While the academic gains haven’t materialized, Mr. Pecko said he believes the plan will show up on report cards.
“I think sometimes we get frustrated that we don’t see noticeable improvements right away,” he said, “but we are seeing it a little bit.”
He’s also incredibly proud of a philosophical switch in how TPS educates most students with special needs. The district last year moved to an “inclusion model,” where most special needs students take regular classes, instead of spending much of their time in self-contained rooms.
Mr. Pecko also points to what he says are increased partnerships between TPS and community organizations under his tenure. Those include initiatives such as the schools-as-community-hubs program, a TPS-United Way led concept that pairs schools with area agencies.
But Mr. Pecko’s biggest legacy may be yet to come, as the younger staff he groomed takes over.