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Baltimore City Public Schools new CEO Sonja Santelise' isued a citywide call to action in her first State of Schools address.
Baltimore City Public Schools new CEO Sonja Santelise' isued a citywide call to action in her first State of Schools address. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Baltimore school board President Marnell Cooper said Friday the panel asked its attorney to hire a search firm when it looked for a new CEO this year so it could keep the process confidential.

The school board announced last week that it had hired Sonja Santelises, a former chief academic officer for the city's schools, to replace the embattled Gregory Thornton. Local school boards in Maryland typically announce when they begin a search for a new leader, but Cooper said members felt in this case it would be a distraction to educators.

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Cooper said Friday the board asked its attorney, Roger C. Thomas, to negotiate the financial terms of Thornton's departure and to hire the firm entreQuest to launch the nationwide search for his replacement.

The school board then reimbursed Thomas $33,000 for the cost of the search, Cooper said.

Written school system policy requires the board to take a public vote on expenditures of $25,000 or more. Asked about that, Cooper said the board felt it had to act quickly and decided the nondisclosed expenditure would be acceptable if done by its lawyer.

"Anything we want to keep confidential, we go through our attorney. It was in the purview of his responsibility," Cooper said.

"I believe we were exercising our authority in order to make the decision on a new CEO," he said. "We went through a process to keep it confidential to protect the interests of the candidates and the students."

The process kept secret from parents, teachers, legislators and the public that the board was about to get rid of its current superintendent two years before the end of his contract and hire a new leader.

Cooper had said last week that a private business hired and paid the search firm, but would not disclose the name of the business.

The Baltimore Sun and other news organizations filed Maryland Public Information Act requests to force the school board to release the name of the business. That led to Cooper's statement Friday, revealing that the law firm was the business.

Thomas declined to comment and referred questions to the school board president.

Cooper's latest disclosure drew criticism from elected officials.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said through a spokesman he plans to hold hearings on the selection process. In a resolution to be introduced Monday, Young questions the secrecy in choosing an important city leader and says the process unfairly taints Santelises.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke also faulted the board's method.

"It is not transparent," she said. While Santelises "seems positive," Clarke said the way the search played out "should not ever be repeated. We have a right to know."

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, said she also is troubled by the board's action. "I think it is legal; I just don't think it is very transparent," she said.

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During this year's General Assembly session, Conway secured passage of legislation aimed at requiring the board to include two state legislators in any search for a new schools chief. Santelises had been offered a contract before the legislation was signed into law.

On Friday, Santelises maintained that she was comfortable with a confidential application process — not uncommon for superintendent searches. But, she added, she was not privy to the details of how the board conducted the search.

Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who studies government contracting, faulted the way in which the search firm was hired. It bypassed the usual process of seeking bids for the contract and then voting in open session, he noted.

"It is a bad idea for several reasons," Tiefer said.

"In 20 years of studying procurement, I have never heard of a practice of doing your procurement through a private attorney. Does he know a great deal about educational search firms?"

There should be competition in the bidding of any services over $25,000, Tiefer said. "That is always the rule, even for noncontroversial purchases like cleaning services."

The firm entreQuest conducts executive searches. In a statement, the school board said entreQuest conducted the initial interviews at a discounted cost of $33,000.

Cooper said there was no relationship between the attorney and Santelises, and that she competed for the job with a number of well-qualified candidates. He said the board took its action at a time when the public was raising questions about the board and Thornton.

"I feel we wanted to keep the process confidential, and that is what we did," he said.

Educators, legislators and education advocates have reacted favorably to the hiring of Santelises, who was widely praised during her three years as head of academics in the Baltimore school system. She left in 2013 to work for The Education Trust, a Washington think tank.

She and her husband live in North Baltimore and send their three children to a public city charter school. Santelises said last week she was comfortable with the process being closed but had expected some fallout.

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