Baltimore School Commission Ousts Thornton, Hires Santelises

(Photo: Safe and Sound Campaign)

(Photo: Safe and Sound Campaign)

The Baltimore City Board School Commission has announced the replacement of its current CEO, Gregory Thornton. The school board will replace Thornton with the former city school chief academic officer, Sonja B. Santelises. Thornton will step down by the end of the week.

Santelises, 48, who serves as the vice president for K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, will start her tenure as CEO on July 1. The interim CEO, Tammy Turner, has been general counsel with the school system since 2006.

"We believe Dr. Santelises is the person to lead Baltimore City Schools for the next ten years," said Marnell Cooper, Chairman of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners in a statement. "The board recognizes that the work Dr. Santelises performed as Chief Academic Officer in Baltimore set us in a direction where the students were improving. We believe her most recent experience at The Education Trust in Washington has given her an even broader perspective and will result in greater academic achievement in Baltimore City."

Erica Green of The Baltimore Sun writes that Thornton, who came to Baltimore from Milwaukee, had fallen out of favor with the school board this past year. He has been criticized for a lack of vision for the school system and a protracted legal battle with some of Baltimore's charter schools. A host of education advocates, politicians, and community members were calling for his firing. His ousting comes less than two years into his four year contract.

In announcing Thornton's resignation, however, the school board's chairman, Marnell Cooper, praised him for his efforts to improve schools and reorder the system's finances. "In a short time, he made progress cutting costs and helping the system save millions by insisting on an independent audit of our health insurance," Cooper said.

The Baltimore school system educates more than 80,000 students in 186 schools with a $1.2 billion budget. For his part, Thornton said he was proud of the work he had accomplished. He believes that he has helped the district operate more efficiently and launched a program to provide all students with free breakfast and lunch.

Supposedly, the decision to replace Thornton had been reached amicably. The national search whittled down a field of many qualified individuals nationwide to a shortlist of eight candidates for the position of CEO. Each of the final eight was interviewed before Santelises was selected.

Baltimore's school board chose not to announce its search publicly. The board made its offer to Santelises on the last day of the Maryland General Assembly session in April. Historically, superintendent searches have been made public; the board that hired Thornton held public forums throughout the hiring process. This time, however, board members did not want the search process to become a distraction for teachers, students, and administrators. Shortlisted candidates were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Observers were not surprised by Thornton's abbreviated stay. According to Joanna Sullivan of the Baltimore Business Journal, the tenure of most school superintendents in major urban areas, given an array of complexities with unions, finances, and politics, is notoriously short – about three years.

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