Sonja Santelises will replace Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton. (Baltimore Sun video)
After months of searching for a new leader amid criticism of city schools CEO Gregory Thornton, the school board announced Tuesday that he will be replaced by a former administrator who oversaw improving academic performance in the district.
Thornton will step down Friday, and Sonja Santelises will take over July 1.
"We believe Sonja has the ability to lead the district for the next 10 years," said Marnell Cooper, the school board chairman. "Her background as an educator is clear, she's incredibly strong, she understands the challenges of the school system."
The decision ends Thornton's divisive tenure less than two years into a four-year contract. State lawmakers, religious leaders and education advocates have said he lacks vision, direction and follow-through, and a growing number of lawmakers and community activists in recent months have called for his ouster.
Thornton, who came to Baltimore from Milwaukee in 2014, grappled with a litany of financial and operational mishaps as head of Maryland's fourth-largest school system. He leaves the district embroiled in a bitter legal dispute with more than a dozen charter schools.
In a statement, Thornton said he was proud of his work in Baltimore, saying he helped the district operate more efficiently and launched programs that provide all students with free breakfast and lunch and that encourage dropouts to return to school.
"It was an honor working with and serving the students of Baltimore City Schools," Thornton said. "In less than two years, we made great progress, and I am proud of the accomplishments."
Santelises served for three years as chief academic officer under Andres Alonso, Thornton's predecessor. Until Santelises takes over, Tammy Turner, the system's chief legal counsel, will lead the city schools. The system educates more than 80,000 students in 186 schools and programs with a $1.2 billion budget.
Santelises emerged as Thornton's replacement during a national search that began in December, Cooper said. She was one of four finalists out of 8 candidates vetted by the city school board.
The board did not announce publicly that a search was underway. The board made its offer to Santelises on the last day of the Maryland General Assembly session in April, when lawmakers approved legislation that established a partially elected school board and required one lawmaker from the House of Delegates and the state Senate to take part in selecting the next CEO.
That bill has not been signed by Gov. Larry Hogan and has not become law.
Historically, superintendent searches in the city have been announced publicly but were kept confidential. The board that hired Thornton held public forums during the search process.
Cooper said the board did not announce the search, conducted by the local firm EntreQuest, because board members did not want it to become a distraction for teachers, students and administrators. Job candidates signed a nondisclosure agreement.
The board members searched for the candidates themselves and EntreQuest vetted them, Cooper said.
"This was not an attempt to be underhanded," Cooper said. "Just because the adults had to figure things out, we couldn't let that affect the kids."'
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who called for Thornton's resignation on the floor of the Senate and supported legislative input in the CEO search, said he understands that the district needed to move quickly.
"I am pleased to see the school board take decisive action and demonstrate urgency to move the city schools forward," he said.
Andrew Foster Connors, co-chairman of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, said the community group is "ready to do our part to rebuild the trust between North Avenue and community partners."
Jimmy Gittings, president of the union that represents principals and central office staff, said the quick succession of superintendents is disruptive. But he said he has the "highest regard" for Santelises and found her to be a "very fair and cooperative person" with respect for the unions.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat who is expected to win the general election for mayor in November, said she looks forward to meeting Santelises and sharing her vision for the school system with the new CEO. While her interactions with Thornton "have always been positive," Pugh said, "there were some shortcomings and maybe some were insurmountable."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who did not run for re-election, is thankful to Thornton for his service and has confidence in the school board, a spokesman said.
Since Santelises left the district in August 2013, she has served as vice president of K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank.
Santelises, 48, told The Baltimore Sun she is looking forward to returning to work in Baltimore, where she lives and her three children attend public charter schools.
As chief academic officer under Alonso, who resigned in May 2013, Santelises was credited with putting the system ahead of the curve as the nation rolled out more rigorous education standards known as the Common Core.
Her tenure coincided with a slight rise in standardized test scores among elementary school students.
Before she came to Baltimore, Santelises held several positions over 10 years in the Boston public school system, including assistant superintendent for pilot schools and assistant superintendent for professional development.
The Harvard-educated native of Peabody, Mass., also served as executive director of the Algebra Project, a New York-based nonprofit that works to improve mathematics skills for low-income minorities. She began her career as director of professional development and teacher placement with Teach for America in New York, and taught at a school in Brooklyn.
At the Education Trust, Santelises has been studying policy implementation in schools across the nation. She said the perspective she has gained inspired her to take the schools CEO position.
She said she was not looking for the job, and knows that it will be "incredibly hard work," but it comes "in the right place at the right time."
The unrest that gripped the city last spring after the death of Freddie Gray from spinal injuries suffered in police custody helped to cement her desire to go back to work serving Baltimore's children, Santelises said.
"This is one of those times, where it's not about me, it is really about the potential of this school system," she said. "I don't see our schools as being totally incapable and totally dysfunctional. Those are not the people I worked with.
"I worked in a city system that was not perfect, that had incredible challenges, but had critical masses of people who wanted to do right by kids."
Santelises said she would prioritize resetting the direction of the district, getting control of its finances, and better connect schools with city and community services.
She said she would focus on staffing and restructuring support for the lowest-performing schools.
She also said she would do a lot of listening.
"I am not re-entering the system with an attitude of 'I'm picking up where I left off,'" she said. "Because it's a different system now."
The board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on a four-year contract that would pay Santelises $298,000 a year.
Thornton's deal was worth $290,000 a year. He will receive his third-year salary under a separation agreement negotiated by the board, Cooper said.
On Tuesday, the school board also approved an annual budget that cuts central office staff, including school police officers, and funds literacy and math initiatives.
Critics of Thornton pointed to poor academic performance. Dropout rates are up, and the results from new standardized tests were worse than expected.
The system also saw an unexpected drop in enrollment of 1,900 students after years of growth. Thornton has launched an internal investigation about whether sloppy record-keeping kept former students on attendance rolls.
Charter school operators sued the school system last fall, alleging that the district fails to fund their schools in accordance with state law.
Amid the upheaval, Cooper pointed to Thornton's accomplishments. The schools chief managed sizable budget shortfalls, worked to implement a $1 billion school construction project, and launched a five-year strategic plan for the district.
Cooper said Thornton's greatest strength was focusing on equity for all students. Securing the free-meal program and his efforts to reach dropouts illustrated Thornton's dedication to students, Cooper said.
"The objective is to try to build upon the efforts of CEOs, and we selected someone who could build upon some of the operational things that have been started under Dr. Thornton," Cooper said. "But there's more to education than operations. We believe Dr. Santelises can really use the strategic plan to improve academics and achievement."
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.