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Baltimore school board criticized for secret search for new CEO

Sheila Dixon is one of several people observing as Baltimore election officials count provisional ballots amid questions about the results of the Baltimore City mayoral race. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

City and state officials criticized the Baltimore school board Wednesday for conducting a secret search for a new schools chief that left the public and key legislators unaware that the process was underway.

The board's announcement Tuesday night that schools CEO Gregory Thornton would step down and be replaced by Sonja Santelises caught officials and the community by surprise.

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"I was really shocked. I felt they shouldn't have did it in secrecy," City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said Wednesday. "They should have let the leaders of the city know because, No. 1, we get the blame for the schools."

Young said he learned of the selection from his spokesman, who heard about it from a news reporter.

Thornton's departure ends a divisive tenure of less than two years. Santelises, a former chief academic officer for Baltimore schools who left the system three years ago, is scheduled to take over July 1.

She has generally received praise since the announcement was made.

School board Chairman Marnell Cooper said he notified more than a dozen legislators about two hours before the announcement Tuesday.

The board decided to keep the process quiet, he said, because members did not want to undermine Thornton's ability to get work done.

He said the board met privately with Thornton in December to tell him that it would begin a search for a new leader in January.

In public, Cooper continued to imply that Thornton would remain in the job.

"Dr. Thornton received a positive evaluation after his first year with the district, and we expect that he will fulfill the remainder of his contract," Cooper said in February.

Cooper said Thornton understood the need for a change and was professional in their private discussions.

"Both sides recognized that there may be some challenges that may not be overcome," Cooper said. "We had to figure out how to resolve it."

Through a spokeswoman, Thornton declined to comment Wednesday.

Cooper said board members also were concerned that a public announcement of the search would be a distraction for teachers and administrators and stressful for the school system.

"What if we didn't find a CEO? That could possibly have happened," Cooper said.

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While the board was united on the need to replace Thornton, he said, members worried that if they found no top candidate for the job, an interim CEO would have to be hired.

Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, was unswayed.

"It is disappointing that this board would continue a process of being less than transparent," she said.

She expressed concern that the board did not allow legislators or members of the public to meet with the final candidates, or even acknowledge that there was a search.

But some education leaders who are pleased with the choice said the board's actions were warranted.

"I applaud what they did under these very difficult circumstances," said former board member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, a longtime education advocate. "I think they had to move. Things were spiraling downhill."

Hettleman, among the more vocal critics of the school board, called for Thornton to step down last year. He said he is thrilled with the decision to hire Santelises.

"First, she knows academic instruction, which is the city's big problem," he said. "She knows how to manage people. She knows how to manage relationships. She is decisive. I think we are lucky to have her."

School boards in Maryland usually announce a search for a new superintendent or CEO months before a decision is made. In large systems, the board usually hires a search firm that sets up a process to allow the public to express the qualities they want in a new superintendent. The board usually must vote in public on the contract with the search firm.

In the search for a new Maryland superintendent, the state school board sent out a news release announcing whom it had hired to conduct the search.

The Baltimore school board did not make it known that it had started the search. It worked with a local business that paid a search firm $36,000, Cooper said.

Because a private company hired and paid the search firm, the board did not have to take a public vote on the contract, which would have alerted the public to a search.

School board members initially began contacting candidates about the job, and the search firm vetted them.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was notified that Thornton would be stepping down and that a search was underway.

Although the mayor did not meet with Santelises before the announcement, spokesman Anthony McCarthy said, she was notified in advance and was satisfied with the role she played.

The board made its offer to Santelises the day the General Assembly approved a bill that established a partially elected school board and required two state lawmakers to take part in selecting a new superintendent.

The legislation came as rumors swirled that the school board would take action to remove Thornton. The bill has not been signed into law by the governor.

"Many of us have expressed strong concern and had every expectation to be part of the hiring process," Washington said. "Over the last six months, there have been calls for a change, but no one confirmed that on Tuesday, May 2, the board will be taking action. There was never notice that the board had contracted with a search firm."

She said she believed the city legislative delegation would discuss "how to respond to this."

Damon Effingham, policy manager at Common Cause Maryland, said the board should have made the search process public, given that the new schools chief will be paid $298,000 a year over the next four years.

The unrest in Baltimore over the past year, and the public frustration with city institutions that it revealed, were further reasons the process should have been open, he said.

"They are not involving the community," Effingham said. "It is absolutely the wrong way to overcome a lot of the issues."

Santelises said she was comfortable with the process being closed but did expect some fallout. She said it made it easier for her to apply, given that she lives in the city and would have received questions from neighbors and friends.

"It was comforting because if at some point I decided it wasn't for me, me and the board could go our separate ways," she said.

Santelises was the chief academic officer from 2010 to 2013 under city schools chief Andrés Alonso, Thornton's predecessor. She left her job with the city schools in August 2013 to serve as vice president of K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank.

She lives in Baltimore and sends her children to city public charter schools. She has received high marks from the education community for her leadership during the Alonso years.

Former board member James Campbell said the public should have been involved in the hiring process, but he was nonetheless delighted with the choice.

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Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN, an education advocacy group, said he normally would be in favor of more public engagement.

"I do think in this case, we are in a very tough moment for city schools," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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