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Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises' contract extension will pay her almost as much as the head of New York City's schools, which have more than 12 times the students as Baltimore.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises' contract extension will pay her almost as much as the head of New York City's schools, which have more than 12 times the students as Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam)

When the Baltimore City school board voted Tuesday night to approve a $325,000 salary and a four-year contract for its schools chief, Sonja Santelises, the board feared she could be lured away by other school systems.

“With the skill and expertise she has, other people would like to have her,” said school board chair Linda Chinnia, indicating that she believes Santelises could be hired away from the district. Chinnia said the schools CEO had earned the increase from $298,000 to $325,000.

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The salary is believed to be the highest salary ever earned by a Maryland schools superintendent, according to state pay data analyzed by The Sun. She will earn significantly more than others in the state, and just $20,000 less than the Chancellor of New York City’s public schools, where there are nearly 1 million school children. Baltimore’s enrollment is about 80,000.

The vote was unanimous among the school board, although two of the nine voting members were absent. The new contract and the salary increase will begin July 1.

Chinnia said the board decided to raise the CEO’s pay significantly after looking at salaries in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Prince George’s is paying the superintendent it hired last summer, Monica Goldson, $302,000. Montgomery County approved extending Jack Smith for another four years Monday, but is in negotiations over how much he will be paid. Chinnia said she would expect Smith’s $290,000 salary to increase.

“This is the type of leader we need to push us forward," she said.

Santelises, who is finishing her fourth year in the city, has earned the support of the school board, parents and principals. She will be one of the only CEOs in the past two decades in the city to receive a second four-year contract. And her rising pay reflects the competition across the country for top leaders.

Nationally, the median salary for a superintendent with a school system of more than 25,000 students is $236,000, according to data gathered by the American Association of School Administrators. However, superintendents in some wealthy suburban districts are making more than $400,000, said Dan Domenech, the association’s executive director.

“So the competition between school boards to hire the superintendent they think will get the job done is fierce,” Domenech said.

While the public tends to think of superintendents as glorified teachers, he said, they should be thinking of them as CEOs in charge of millions of dollars. Often they handle a good percentage of the communities tax dollars, are the largest employer and are on call 24 hours a day.

A similar private sector CEO would earn 10 times the salary of a school superintendent, he said. Domenech was making more than $300,000 as the superintendent of Fairfax County, Va., more than a decade ago.

No other superintendent in the region will make as much as Santelises. Baltimore County’s Darryl Williams, who had not been a superintendent before he took the job in July, is making $290,000, slightly less than Santelises is currently. Howard County Superintendent Michael J. Martirano is earning $285,000, Anne Arundel County’s superintendent makes $279,000 and Harford’s makes $217,000.

To some degree, superintendent salaries increase with the enrollment of their school districts. Large suburban and urban school superintendents earn more than those overseeing small, rural districts, according to the the school administrators association.

Joe Hairston, who led the Baltimore County system for 12 years, was earning $314,000 when he retired in 2012 after 12 years. Dallas Dance, a much younger, first time superintendent who followed Hairston, earned $275,000 a year when he resigned after five years in 2017.

Santelises’ contract also says she will earn a 2.5% annual pay increase each year during the four years of the contract. In addition, she will receive 38 days of paid vacation each year — and will be allowed to carry over 15 days of that vacation.

After the vote, Santelises set high expectations for her next four years. She said she had the right team in place to secure greater gains in student achievement. In her first three years she had increases in achievement in math and English language arts, but she said there are still too many students graduating without the basic skills they need to get a job.

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“The last last three and a half years was the foundation laying and now we are going for the big prize,” she said, of systemwide increases in achievement.

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