Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson to join new city schools cabinet

Civil rights activist and former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson was named Interim Chief Human Capital Officer by incoming schools CEO Sonja Santelises. (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)

Civil rights activist and former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson will return to his old stamping grounds at city school headquarters to lead the district's office of human capital.

Mckesson was named interim chief human capital officer on Tuesday by incoming schools CEO Sonja Santelises. It was the second and most high-profile cabinet appointment made by the new chief, who begins her tenure Friday.


Santelises said Mckesson, who spent about two and a half years overseeing key reforms as a strategist and special assistant in the human capital office, would lead the office at least through the fall.

"He has the depth of knowledge of the system, and he has proved that he can lift the work in a short amount of time," Santelises said in an interview. "And he has proven his dedication to the children of Baltimore."


Mckesson called Santelises a "gifted leader" and said he was proud to join her team.

"At its core, this role is about finding great people, matching them to the right role, and helping them to develop and experience careers in the service of our kids," Mckesson said. "I am excited to return to city schools … and to continue doing the work to ensure that every child in Baltimore City receives a world-class education."

The 30-year-old Baltimore native and Black Lives Matter activist is fresh from an unexpected run for mayor of Baltimore. He finished sixth in the Democratic primary.

Mckesson catapulted onto the national media stage nearly two years ago when he took a leave of absence from his job as senior director of human capital in the Minneapolis Public Schools system to protest the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.


Mckesson founded and leads We the Protesters, a group that advocates policy changes against police violence.

Mckesson, who will earn a salary of $165,000, will be the district's third chief of human capital in two years, and manage of a budget of $4 million and 56 employees.

In a release, school officials said they would conduct a nationwide search for a new chief of human capital. The current interim head of the department, Deborah Sullivan, will return to her former position as executive director of organizational development.

He is the second cabinet appointment for Santelises. In May, she announced that Alison Perkins-Cohen, currently an executive director of new initiatives, will serve as her chief of staff and earn a salary of $178,500.

McKesson returns to the district as Santelises' new administration prepares to open schools in August, a task that Santelises said was both challenging and crucial.

"We have no time to waste. Every day in class is precious for our students, and every school must be ready to go when the opening bell rings," she said in a statement. "Mr. Mckesson has the hand-on experience, leadership skills, and energy to help us make that happen."

The office of human capital has a history of failing to fully staff schools, process paperwork and produce reliable data. Schools opened last year without enough teachers and principals. Hundreds of teachers and school staff also did not receive their first few paychecks on time.

As special assistant to the director of human capital, Mckesson advised the district's top officials and helped manage the department's budget and day-to-day operations. As a strategist, he was instrumental in implementing the a pay-for-performance contract, building systems that linked evaluation data to compensation.

In Minneapolis, Mckesson helped restructure the district office, change the human capital office's recruitment and teacher selection process, and build professional development and orientation programs for new teachers. He served in that role for 15 months.

Mckesson was a surprise entrant this year in the Democratic primary for mayor — he filed his candidacy on the day of the Feb. 3 deadline — and struggled to catch up to opponents who had been running for months.

With nearly 420,000 Twitter followers and appearances on nationally televised late-night talk shows, Mckesson quickly gained thousands of small contributions from around the country — dwarfing the number of contributions from any other campaign. He received checks from people in every state and the District of Columbia, and from famous names such as actress Susan Sarandon, who endorsed him on Twitter.

He won praise from President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who dubbed Mckesson a "social media emperor."

But Mckesson found it difficult to win over Baltimore primary voters, some of whom said they viewed him as an outsider. He finished sixth in a crowded field won by state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh. He garnered more than 3,400 votes, or about 2.6 percent of the total.

Mckesson's tenure as a sixth-grade teacher through Teach for America drew skeptics during his campaign, requiring him to address charges that he was a champion of privatizing education.

He dedicated a portion of his campaign website to debunk claims that he's a puppet of the "Illuminati, George Soros, or Teach for America."

He called for expanding full-day pre-K to enroll all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, the public release of all internal audits of the city school system, and reforming state funding formulas to prevent tax deals for developers from hurting school funding.

He also said he wanted to "radically transform" Baltimore's community college, create a fund for occupational skills training and fully incorporate arts education into all schools.

Baltimore writer D. Watkins, who observed Mckesson's mayoral run, said he was proud to see a fellow high-profile activist stay in the community. He said he understands some of the backlash Mckesson received from other activists who criticized him as an outsider.

"It's difficult," he said. "If you leave Baltimore, you're a sell-out, you're a phony. And if you stay, nobody's really willing to invest in you."

He called Mckesson "sharp and intelligent," and that the city needed people like him working in institutions like the school system just as much as it needs protesters to hold such institutions accountable.

"Anybody who's young and black and doing something positive, I support them 100 percent," Watkins said. "Hopefully, the whole activist community and the people who do positive work, we can all unite."


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