Thornton is leaving and his successor was picked quietly

May 4, 2016

Dr. Gregory Thornton
Credit P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

The Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners announced Tuesday that Dr. Gregory Thorton will leave his post as schools CEO on Friday. But the move has been in the works for months.

Marnell Cooper, chairman of the school commissioner board, said the search was conducted quietly so the school system would not be distracted.

The board named Dr. Sonja Santelises, a vice president at The Education Trust - a non-profit that focuses on achievement gaps – in Washington, D.C., to replace Thornton.  She is to take over July 1. Tammy Turner, the school system’s general counsel since 2006, will be acting CEO in the interim.

Cooper said Thornton told commission members that media scrutiny affected his ability to do his job.

“As a result, we had a discussion around that and the discussion was about ‘well if we had to separate and how can we do this in the most effective way without impacting the district negatively,” he said.

Thornton has been dogged by criticism from community leaders, lawmakers, advocates and even some school board members for failing to communicate.

Cooper said the commissioners conducted the search quietly so the school system would not be distracted.

They chose Santelises from a field of eight because of her experience and what he called her “impeccable credentials.”

“She had been able to work with urban districts around the country to understand how to scale achievement in an urban district,” he said.

Dr. Sonja Santelises
Credit The Education Trust

Before joining The Education Trust as vice president of K-12 policy and practice, Santelises was Baltimore’s Chief Academic Officer from 2010-2013.  Her past experience includes lecturing at Harvard, leading a math reform project – the New York City Algebra Project – and working as an associate at an education consulting firm.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she hopes people will focus on Santelises’ “excellent reputation” and not on how the school board chose her.

“I don’t know of any place where how the person was chosen has any impact on the outcomes for our young people in the classroom,” she said.

Rawlings-Blake said she was notified by school officials of Thornton’s resignation and Santelises’ hiring before the announcement was made.

But City Council President Jack Young said he didn’t find out until after the board made its announcement. He said his spokesman, Lester Davis, told him about it after he saw news reports. Young said he didn’t like the secrecy.

“They should have let leaders of the city know because, number one, we get the blame for the schools,” Young said.  “The school system is why a lot of young families leave the City of Baltimore.”

Cooper said they tried several attempts to reach Young while contacting city and state legislators.  But they were unable to reach him.

State Senator Bill Ferguson confirmed he was contacted by school officials before the announcement.  He had been critical of Thornton; including calling for his ouster on the Senate floor.

Ferguson said he has philosophical disagreements with Thornton on who makes better decisions for students and that Thornton was more focused on operations and budget management than academic achievement.

“When we empower school communities, they tend to do great things,” he said.  “Dr. Thornton’s approach was more about centralizing decision making and bringing things up to the central office.”

Ferguson did praise Thornton for his commitment to children and credited the school board for taking action to move forward. He said he is “excited” to see Santelises over.

Santelises said she will talk to teachers, community leaders and everyone who has a stake in the school system as she prepares to take over.  She added she’s “really excited” to return to Baltimore and encouraged about where the school system is positioned.

“I think there is a great opportunity for us to really be able to demonstrate what it looks like for an urban system to really successfully move all of its young people to levels of growth and achievement,” she said.