Activist DeRay Mckesson to leave Baltimore school system

Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson plans to leave his position as head of human resources for Baltimore's public schools by the end of the month.

Mckesson, who has served as the school system's chief human capital officer for more than a year, said in an interview he intends to remain in Baltimore, continue hosting his popular podcast and focus on social justice activism.

"It was an honor to come back to city schools and serve in this role," Mckesson said. "I believe in the superintendent. I believe in the kids of Baltimore. I think of it as complementary and inclusive to the other organizing work I do with social justice."

The Baltimore native and Black Lives Matter activist is known nationally for his activism. He had a lesser-known career in several human resources departments before new schools CEO Sonja Santelises offered him the $165,000-a-year job.

While some criticized the hiring, Santelises praised Mckesson's work. She said he showed great attention to detail, and worked late nights on complex staffing and payroll issues.

"There is no way we would have made it through this first year without DeRay's leadership," Santelises said. "I say that unapologetically and with great assuredness. He is leaving us in such a better position. He is one of the rare people who can talk about equity and then is not afraid to put boots to the ground and do the hard work that yields equity."

Santelises named Mckesson to the job in an interim capacity in June 2016, saying she expected him to serve at least through the fall while the system conducted a national search for a permanent chief of human capital. She said his replacement will be named by the end of the month.

Mckesson, 32, catapulted onto the national media stage nearly three years ago when he took a leave of absence from his job as senior director of human capital in the Minneapolis public school system to protest the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He had previously worked in human resources in Baltimore.

Mckesson founded and leads We the Protesters, a group that advocates policy changes against police violence.

Mckesson took the school system job after running for mayor of Baltimore. He finished sixth in the Democratic primary last year.

As director of human capital, Mckesson led the district's staffing and oversaw retirement, health insurance, workers' compensation and labor relations.

"We placed the vast majority of principals by July 1 this year and last year," he said. "I managed the implementation of the layoffs in a way that allowed as few people to be laid off as possible. We originally announced 1,000 layoffs, and we laid off less than 150 people."

Even so, Marietta English, the president of Baltimore Teachers Union, called the layoffs "nothing short of a humiliation for those who were dismissed while in the middle of classroom instruction."

The school system made the layoffs while facing a $130 million budget deficit.

"I hope the new person assigned to this position will help us to turn the page on this chapter and work with the Baltimore Teachers Union to fill vacant positions with our teachers and paraprofessionals who were laid off, our educators who have a proven record of being committed and dedicated to the students they teach, the families the serve, and the schools in which they work," English said.

Santelises said she thought it was more humane to have layoffs done in person, rather than by email. She said school officials fought to save as many jobs as possible, but declined to place teachers into subjects they weren't certified to teach.

"There was a lot of time and energy put into doing it the most humane way," she said.

Santelises called Mckesson's departure from the school system "very sad," but said she's looking forward to what he does next.

"It's an exciting time for him. We were incredibly fortunate to have him for as long as we did," she said.

Mckesson has about 860,000 Twitter followers. His podcast, "Pod Save The People," has been ranked as high as No. 2 on iTunes. His guests have included Katy Perry, Edward Snowden and Cory Booker.

"I look forward to continuing to organize," Mckesson said. "We'll be launching projects soon around mass incarceration, capacity building and continuing to create digital tools for people."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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