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."
Thornton started his career as a teacher in Maryland. He taught for about three years before moving to administration. He also served in central office roles in Montgomery County and North Carolina, and as superintendent of the Chester Upland School District, a small system in southeastern Pennsylvania.
In Milwaukee, which has a similar enrollment and budget to Baltimore, he oversaw steady gains on national assessments and a slight increase in high school graduation rates. At the same time, students continued to struggle on state assessments.
He also expanded school choice, restored programs such as art, physical education and music, and implemented a master plan for facilities
In Baltimore, Thornton said, his priorities will include raising student achievement, overseeing the renovations plan and strengthening relations with the greater community.
"Baltimore's challenges are no different than Milwaukee … no different than any urban center in America," he said. "The key that will distinguish us from the others, is the rate at which we move, and the rate at which we sustain the movement. It's easy to move quickly, and get a quick blip, but the question is can we sustain it."
Milwaukee's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that is considered the most reliable in the nation, rose slightly over Thornton's tenure. Fourth-grade reading rose by three points and eighth-grade math rose by six points between 2009 and 2013.
But in 2013 Milwaukee's eighth-graders scored below Baltimore's in both reading and math. Fourth-graders in Milwaukee and Baltimore had similar scores in math, but Milwaukee was significantly behind in reading.
Before he went to Milwaukee, Thornton was a finalist for several administrative positions across the country.
In 2001, he was a finalist for the head job in Bloomfield Public Schools in Connecticut, but dropped out after the board learned that he had filed for bankruptcy and decided to extend its search.
In 2007, while working in Philadelphia, he was a candidate for the superintendent job in Seattle, but said he did not go because he was wooed by the governor of Pennsylvania to stay back east.
There were conflicting reports at the time that he also sought the Baltimore schools CEO position. His boss in 2007 called him a "front-runner" for the job, but Thornton said Tuesday he was never officially a candidate.
Also in 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported the superintendent there had wooed him to be the chief academic officer, but Thornton turned down the job because the district would not meet his $275,000 salary demand.
Later in the year, he took a job to head the small Chester Upland school district near Philadelphia.
He was there for three years before he moved to Milwaukee in 2010. Last year, The Washington Post reported he was a candidate for the superintendent's job in Prince George's County.
Thornton served as a deputy superintendent in Montgomery County for two years in the early 2000s. In 2004, he moved to Philadelphia, where he served as chief academic officer
While in Montgomery County, Thornton said, the curriculum provider Plato Learning Inc. had helped to pay for a 10-day trip he took with other educators to South Africa.
Five months later, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, when Thornton moved to Philadelphia, he signed off on a $926,000 no-bid contract with the company.
Thornton did not disclose the trip on his annual financial ethics form and did not recuse himself from signing off on the contract.
At first, Philadelphia Superintendent Paul Vallas said the trip clearly was improper.
"I don't need a lawyer to tell me this is a violation of the ethics policy," Vallas told The Inquirer.
But later, Vallas reported that the district's inspector general had investigated and cleared Thornton of any wrongdoing. Vallas championed Thornton as a candidate for the superintendent's job in Baltimore in 2007.
"It was probably the trip of a lifetime," Thornton said Tuesday, "and there was found to be no impropriety at all."
In the early 1990s, Thornton and his family purchased a KFC franchise in Easton, Md., under the name of GTGG Inc. Thornton said he put down a payment to secure the loan.
"It was a family project," he said.
In June 1995, GTGG filed for bankruptcy. A month later, KFC Corp. filed a lawsuit and eventually won a $613,000 judgment against Thornton and his wife, Theresa.
"It went belly-up. I secured the loan personally," Thornton said. "We were never able to get the sales. The down payment wasn't enough to sustain the day-to-day operations of the business."
Thornton filed for bankruptcy in December 1997. The case was dismissed three months later.
Many of the details of Thornton's background were known when the Baltimore school board hired him.
Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation, which invests in education projects in the city. He said he was aware of some of the issues in his background and had called friends in Philadelphia, Montgomery County and Milwaukee who had all given him positive references and had gotten good reports on Thornton.
"I have great respect for the school board members so I have a presumption in favor of the decision they would make," he said. "I assume the school board knew about and was satisfied with his answers."
Sauls said that the board did its due diligence in vetting Thornton, and feels comfortable with its choice.
"We made the decision based on the trajectory of his career," she said. "We did the vetting, and we feel comfortable moving forward. We are a learning organization, and we're going to move forward.
"This is solid," she added, "it's absolutely solid."
Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan, Colin Campbell and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Married, two children, one grandchild
Education: Temple University, bachelor's in elementary education; M.A. in administration/supervision at Salisbury University. He earned a doctorate in educational leadership at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
2002, Montgomery County Public Schools, community superintendent and deputy superintendent
2004, School District of Philadelphia, chief academic officer
2007, Superintendent of Chester Upland School District
2010, Milwaukee Public Schools, superintendentCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun