Baltimore city school board approves contract for new CEO, other leadership appointments

Sonja Santelises, left, interacts with Marnell Cooper, city school board chair, in between interviews with local news media after she was named to be the next Baltimore City Public Schools CEO. She is replacing Gregory Thornton.

The Baltimore city school board approved a four-year-contract Tuesday for the new superintendent Sonja Santelises, ushering in what many hope will be a renewed focus on academics after the troubled tenure of her predecessor.

Santelises' appointment as the city schools CEO formally begins July 1. Her four-year contract will pay her $298,000 per-year and mirrors that of former schools CEO Gregory Thornton, who left the district Friday just two years into his four year contract and with a year's pay of his $290,000 annual salary.


Marnell Cooper, chair of the school board, praised Santelises and said the board is "energized by what she's going to bring to this job."

He then introduced Santelises, who attended the school board meeting, addressed the crowd and thanked the city for the opportunity to lead the district.


"I have no magic wand in my pocket," she said. "I do not walk on water. This is a team effort."

Some members of the public did express dissatisfaction with Thornton's departure and the somewhat controversial and secret selection of Santileses. The school board conducted the search for the new superintendent without telling the public or key state lawmakers who were seeking input in the selection. To guard against public disclosure, the board tapped an unnamed private company to pay a search firm to vet candidates. That way the board wouldn't have to make the search and selection open to public scrutiny.

The contract maintains a limitation on the amount of unused vacation and personal days that Santelises can cash out, which the board imposed in Thornton's contract after The Baltimore Sun revealed that former city schools CEO Andres Alonso left with more than $100,000 in leave pay.

Amid a flurry of other leadership shuffles that were formalized during the board meeting, members also approved the appointment of Alison Perkins-Cohen, as Santelises' second-in-command.

Perkins who has served as executive director of new initiatives since 2011, will serve as Santelises' chief of staff, also beginning July 1.

In her executive director role, a position created for her under former schools chief Andres Alonso, Perkins-Cohen managed the district's school portfolio and was tasked with ensuring "all students and families have access to great school options that meet their interests and needs." Since then, she has overseen the creation of new schools, implemented a rigorous evaluation of charter and other operator-run schools while also advocating for strengthening strong neighborhood schools.

Before Perkins-Cohen joined the school system, she worked for two years with the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee's Labor/Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee, and was executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project from 2004 to 2010, where she oversaw five schools that transitioned from traditional to charter schools that served about 2,000 students.

Santelises said that in addition to her knowledge of the school system, Perkins-Cohen "understands how to put systems in place to help people be effective…in a way that helps move the work forward."


Santelises' contract outlines unspecified performance bonuses and incentives at the discretion of the board, an 11 percent annual contribution into a retirement account and a $700 monthly car allowance. She will receive 25 vacation days, 18 sick days, and three personal days a year and will have the ability to cash in a portion of her accrued leave at the end of the year or when she leaves the job.

Also included in Santelises' contract is 20 paid transition days – Thornton had 15 days – during which she will prepare to take over the district she left in 2013 after serving three years as its chief academic officer. Santelises is currently vice president of K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust

Notably different, however, is a stipulation making Santelises' annual performance evaluations confidential unless she and the board mutually agree otherwise. Thornton's evaluations were public under his contract. As a result, The Baltimore Sun published his evaluation, which included pages of criticisms and shortcomings from his first year, in March.

The school board also voted to formally appoint Tammy Turner, chief legal counsel for the district, acting CEO until June 30.

Michael Thomas, who oversees the district's career and technology education programs as director of the Office of Learning to Work, will serve as Turner's chief of staff until June 30.

At a breakfast meeting with Santelises at Miss Shirley's restaurant last week, Turner said her role for the next seven weeks is "keeping the train on its tracks."


Turner, who has been with the district since 2006, said she will focus on closing out the school year, making sure graduations go smoothly, completing teacher evaluations, and "ensuring the public remains confident in our kids."

Turner has flown below the radar in the district but said she took on the acting role, because "quite simply, it was an opportunity to help."

Turner scribbled diligently in her notepad as Santelises rattled off the groups she'd like to meet with, schools she'd like to visit, and the "projects," "deliverables," and "hot-button issues" from each central office department.

Turner then advised her on other parts of the job: where to find healthy meals, identifying a person who will remind her to eat, managing a "healthy dose" of presence with her children and the district in the next seven weeks, and breaking from the Washington, D.C. culture of buying lunch for colleagues.

"I am extraordinarily excited and confident that the children of Baltimore will benefit greatly from her tenure," Turner said.