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The school board hired Sonja Santelises, a former chief academic officer in the city, to become the next CEO beginning in July.
The school board hired Sonja Santelises, a former chief academic officer in the city, to become the next CEO beginning in July. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

When the Baltimore school board revealed this month that it had secretly hired a new CEO, city and state officials were incensed that the panel had circumvented a process that would have given them and the public a say.

But they have little recourse beyond airing their grievances.

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For two decades, the city's school board has been jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor, but it answers to neither. The board acts independently, setting rules and regulations while relying on the state and city for funding.

"Nobody is accountable for the school system," said state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, the Democratic nominee for mayor, who is among those who have argued that the mayor should have greater control over city schools.

Oversight is limited. The State Board of Education can overturn a local school board decision but seldom does. City board members, who serve three-year terms, can be unseated only for reasons such as misconduct, incompetence or willful neglect of duty. The role of the board's ethics panel is narrowly defined to examining possible conflicts of interest.

Outcry over the CEO search has stoked debate over who should control the Baltimore school system and whether stronger accountability is needed. Public officials have renewed calls for more school board members to be elected and for city government to have more control over the board.

The board hired Sonja Santelises, a well-regarded former chief academic officer in the city, to become the next CEO beginning in July. Santelises will replace Gregory Thornton, who was on the job for less than two years and drew criticism for failing to improve student performance and reverse enrollment declines. Thornton left in early May with a buyout that included one year of salary.

The city board, in trying to keep secret that it was looking for a new leader, asked its outside attorney to hire and pay a search firm to find candidates. That kept the public — and state and local officials — in the dark about the process. In contrast, the state school board hired a new Maryland superintendent this week after a public national search that began in January.

Baltimore school board President Marnell Cooper has said the panel did not want its search to become a distraction for city teachers and administrators, and that the board relies on its attorney when it wants matters to be kept confidential. The attorney has referred questions on the matter to Cooper.

Cooper declined to comment for this article. Other Baltimore school board members did not return calls or said they had no comment.

The board's policy states that contracts of more than $25,000 must be voted on during a public meeting. The contract with the search firm entreQuest was for $33,000; the board never held a public vote on the contract, but reimbursed its attorney for the cost of the search.

An expert on procurement regulations, Baltimore lawyer Robert Dashiell, said the board clearly broke its own rules for purchasing and should have hired the search firm itself.

"You can't avoid or evade what is your legal responsibility by having someone else do it," Dashiell said.

Dashiell acknowledged that there is little recourse for critics of that lack of transparency. He noted that Santelises has been well received and widely praised even by those who have criticized the process.

"If you think the best interests of the children was achieved, it may be one of those situations in life where you hold your nose and move on," Dashiell said.

The issue of oversight is unlikely to go away, however.

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The General Assembly passed legislation this year to add to the nine-member board two new members who would be elected by city voters. Baltimore's is the last school board in the state to be made up entirely of appointed members.

Pugh said in an interview that she would seek legislation next year to give the mayor greater control over Baltimore schools. While Pugh faces Republican Alan Walden in the November election, she is widely expected to win in the Democratic-dominated city.

"We will go back to the legislature and ask for that accountability," Pugh said.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is reviewing the legislation that would add two elected members. He has to decide by Saturday whether to sign it, veto it or have it automatically become law.

Hogan, who appoints members of some school boards, also favors more local control.

"Governor Hogan has consistently expressed his strong support for new legislation that would make local boards of education more accountable to the people in their districts, ideally through direct elections or through appointments by county executives," said his spokesman, Matthew A. Clark.

Baltimore's mayor once had more control of the city school system and sometimes played a role in hiring the superintendent. But in 1997, the city agreed to share the power to appoint the school board with the state in exchange for an infusion of state funds.

Some politicians and community leaders now say more power should return to the mayor.

"For too long key stakeholders have been able to point fingers" in different directions, said Matt Gallagher, president of the Goldseker Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit that provides grants for education projects. "If you have mayoral control, you have much clearer lines of accountability."

Others contend that the problem is not the governance structure, but that the school board is not committed to being open about its actions.

Diana Morris, director of the nonprofit Open Society Institute-Baltimore, said lawmakers grew frustrated with Thornton's leadership and what they saw as the board's failure to take action. "The board seemed to be nonresponsive," she said. "In fact, they were working on this."

The legislation creating two elected school board members also sought to give one lawmaker from the House of Delegates and one from the state Senate a role in selecting the next city schools CEO. The board made its offer to Santelises the day state lawmakers passed the bill.

The board might believe that its actions were expedient, but in the long term, the board lost the trust of a public that now feels disrespected and disengaged, Morris said.

"We can see very dramatically why it is misguided not to be transparent," she said.

Across the state in recent years, many school systems have changed from entirely appointed school boards to elected or partially elected boards. Often, the switch has been made in response to demands for more public input in the direction of the school system. When the board makes a decision the public does not like, members could be ousted in the next election.

But some contend that appointed school boards allow for more diversity, so that boards reflect the racial makeup of a jurisdiction and include parents and financial or education experts.

With Baltimore public schools, city and state officials can exercise some oversight through the budgeting process. They can withhold funding, for instance, until certain actions are taken. But some officials do not like that option because they do not want to cut off funding for education.

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Beyond that, options are limited.

City Solicitor George Nilson said that because the school system is not an agency of city government, his office cannot review procurement decisions. He called the process the school board used to hire a CEO search firm "an unusual transaction."

He noted that city government contracts for more than $25,000 must go before the Board of Estimates.

"We have never had the kind of situation that has occurred in the school system here," Nilson said. "I would not go down the road they just went down."

Aaron Merki, head of the school board's ethics panel, said its role is to issue advisory opinions and consider complaints about board members regarding possible conflicts of interest, outside employment, misuse of office or the disclosure of confidential information.

A citizen can appeal a local school board decision to the state school board, which is appointed by the governor. Spokesman Bill Reinhard said the state board overturns a local board decision "several times" a year, but did not have specific figures. Under Maryland law, the state board should presume that the local board is right and should overturn local decisions only when the "decision is arbitrary, unreasonable, or illegal."

The state board in collaboration with the governor also can unseat a school board member, but that has rarely happened in recent years. In the city, the mayor also would have a say. By law, a school board member can be removed for immorality, misconduct, incompetence, willful neglect of duty or failure to attend at least half the scheduled board meetings.

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