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Baltimore school board found in violation of Open Meetings Act for closed-door meetings about replacing superintendent

The Baltimore school board violated the Maryland Open Meeting Compliance Act on two occasions when it held closed-door meetings to discuss replacing former schools CEO Gregory Thornton, a state board has ruled.

Marnell Cooper, chair of the school board, announced the decision issued by the Maryland Open Meeting Compliance Board at Tuesday night's meeting. He said the Oct. 6 opinion, spurred by a citizen complaint, found that two of six meetings cited in the complaint were not properly announced or documented.

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During public comment at Tuesday's meeting, a citizen who has criticized the board repeatedly for firing Thornton took credit for the complaints and read the opinion aloud before Cooper did. The board was required to disclose the opinion.

"Please know this board takes these findings seriously, and that it will take necessary steps to prevent any further violations," Cooper said.

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Thornton left the CEO position in May after serving less than two years of his four-year-contract. On the night the board announced his departure, it said that it had chosen former chief academic officer Sonja Santelises to succeed him July 1.

The board revealed later that it had held a months-long search after meeting in the fall and informing Thornton in December that they would begin a search for a new leader in January.

Santelises was offered the job in April and was announced as the next schools chief in May.

On Tuesday, Cooper said the compliance board found that a Nov. 10, 2015, meeting violated the state law when the board's discussion "went beyond the mere administration of the superintendent's contract and beyond evaluation."

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That compliance board said school officials did not properly vote to close the meeting and that its subsequent explanation was "deficient." The board also did not summarize the closed session in its minutes as required. Cooper said Tuesday he would look into whether the minutes could be made public.

The compliance board also found that a Jan. 18 meeting, during which the board formulated a plan for the search process and a contract, also violated the Open Meetings Act. Cooper described the meeting as an "unannounced and closed emergency meeting," but the board did not provide notice for the meeting or properly vote to close it.

The compliance board found that four other meetings that were challenged, held on March 8, 21 and 22 and April 12, did not violate the act because they concerned administrative functions, Cooper said.

While most superintendent searches are confidential, they usually are announced. And school systems often issue requests for proposals from search firms and publicly vote on the winning contract.

In hiring the search firm, the board also took extreme measures to keep the search off the public's radar.

It worked with a local business that paid a search firm $36,000, Cooper said. Because a private company hired and paid the search firm, the board did not have to take a public vote on the contract, which would have alerted the public to a search. School board members initially began contacting candidates about the job, and the search firm vetted them.

Santelises, who was required to sign a nondisclosure agreement along with other candidates, was one of four finalists to make it to the vetting process.

Some political leaders, parents and community members criticized the board for not soliciting public input before ousting Thornton or before choosing his replacement.

They also felt deceived because for months before the announcement, both Cooper and Thornton said the schools chief would serve out his contract.

Cooper has said the board believed that an early announcement of Thornton's departure would have been a distraction for both the district and the public, and would have undermined Thornton's ability to lead.

However, many others believed that the board had to act with urgency because of persistent calls for Thornton's ouster, a series of operational mishaps, and a poor first-year evaluation of Thornton made public by The Baltimore Sun.

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