Dr. Gregory Thornton is introduced as the new CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools at John Eager Howard Elementary School. He was previously the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

Before a crowd of students, education leaders and activists, new Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton said Tuesday that he was "coming home" to Maryland, where he will take the helm of one of the state's lowest-performing but highest-profile school districts later this year.

The Baltimore city school board introduced Thornton as its next schools chief at an event at John Eager Howard Elementary School in Reservoir Hill. The 59-year-old Philadelphia native, now in his fourth year as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, is to take over Baltimore City Public Schools in July.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Thornton "gets it."

"He has a passion for children, for schools, and the role of schools in the community, and I think that's essential to the partnership that I have with the school system," she said.

Thornton comes to Baltimore at a critical time, as the district renews its focus on academics and pursues $1 billion in renovations to infrastructure. He brings a resume with some success in Milwaukee and other districts, but also an ethics investigation and personal financial problems stemming from a failed family business.

Thornton has worked in Montgomery County schools. He said he would have left the Midwest only for Baltimore.

"Baltimore is a place that makes so much sense to me," he said in an interview. "I'm energized by the busyness of the city, the busyness of the school district. I'm energized by the challenges the district faces."

He said the 10-year-plan to overhaul its facilities plan was also a big draw.

"Folks don't truly understand the attributes that sit in their own backyard," he said. "We're the envy of the country, being able to engage in one of the biggest building campaigns in the country."

Thornton recently signed a contract to stay in Milwaukee through 2016. He said he does not have to serve out the contract.

Baltimore's school board did not respond to inquiries about whether Thornton has signed a contract here and did not disclose his starting salary. The board advertised the job at a starting salary of $290,000.

Shanaysha Sauls, chair of the city school board, said the full board supported Thornton's appointment. She said he demonstrated many of the skills that the district needs as it enters a critical time.

"He's worked at every level of a district," she said. "He's a systems thinker. He doesn't think about needs in isolation. He thinks about them in terms of how you can set up the right systems and structures so they're sustainable."

She also said she believed Thornton could bring stability.

"He knows how to keep a team," she said. "He can attract thoughtful, smart, dedicated people who stay with the work over years, which we all know is a real need in our district."

Rawlings-Blake, who had said she wanted the next schools CEO to have deep experience, said the board met her expectations.

"In order to protect the progress that we've made," she said, "we need someone who's been there and done that and that can help us to move forward."

The board launched a national search last fall, after the resignation of former schools CEO Andrés Alonso in June. Alonso's chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, signed a $225,000 contract to serve as the interim CEO through June 2014.

At Thornton's announcement, Edwards received a standing ovation and swallowed tears as she thanked her staff and the students.

"I love this city," she said. "I love its children."