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Baltimore schools chief gets critical performance evaluation

City school board grades its superintendent and he doesn't get straight As.

While the Baltimore school board was publicly supporting its new schools chief last spring, members were privately expressing disappointment with Gregory Thornton, saying in documents that he was a poor communicator and had provided no plan to improve flagging academics.

The board raised concerns about Thornton's vision and leadership just 11 months after he arrived from Milwaukee to lead the 85,000-student city school system, an annual performance evaluation obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public information request reveals.

The board's frustration with his failure to provide an academic plan spilled out on the first page of the nine-page evaluation.

"To date no plan has been submitted and the specifics about what might be in process have not been forthcoming," the board wrote.

Members also expressed frustration with what it described as Thornton's inability to keep them informed about major projects.

"The CEO often neglects or seems to struggle with articulating an implementation strategy," the board wrote. "Engaging the board on major projects and objectives to consider the future direction of the district has not yet happened. This is disappointing."

The board credits Thornton with implementing management efficiencies, diagnosing systemic issues in the district and finding ways to save money. Members gave him an overall rating of "effective."

Thornton, who makes $290,000 a year, is in the second year of a four-year contract. He said his first year was difficult, and he had to make unpopular decisions.

The evaluation "mirrors the challenges and successes that the district faced during my first year," he said in a statement. He said he remains committed to the job.

School superintendent evaluations are rarely made public. The district released Thornton's performance assessment after The Baltimore Sun pointed out that his employment contract specifies that it's a public document unless both sides agree to keep it private. The Sun requested it in late February.

The internal document provides striking insight into the school board's thinking on Thornton a year ago.

Before it was released, board Chairman Marnell Cooper said members had given Thornton good marks.

"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," he said.

Vice Chairwoman Tina Hike-Hubbard said Wednesday that Thornton and the board had identified "areas of growth and we continue to work with Dr. Thornton" to improve.

Civic and political leaders say they have lost faith in Thornton's ability to effectively lead the school system.

Several of those critics, who include legislators, faith leaders and education advocates, have called on the school board to take action to remove him. They say he has sown division among schools, failed to articulate a clear vision for the future and hasn't been transparent about budget issues.

Last week, after the school system failed to identify a youth who was kicked and slapped by a school police officer as a student in the school, Sen. Bill Ferguson took to the floor of the Maryland Senate to call on Thornton to resign or be fired.

On Wednesday, the Baltimore Democrat said the evaluation "further confirms my worst fears: Baltimore City Public Schools are in serious jeopardy. Dr. Thornton does not inspire confidence because he does not follow through or back up what he says.

"I cannot understand how or why, with these performance notes, the school board perpetuates a system without direction or leadership," Ferguson said. "We have a rudderless system with poor leadership and, apparently, a 'ghost' school board."

Leaders of the activist group BUILD called on the board to announce a plan.

"It's been almost a year since this evaluation, and things have only gotten worse," Build Co-Chairman Andrew Foster Connors said. "BUILD is looking for action from the board that matches the urgency of the leadership crisis we are facing."

The board credited Thornton with making improvements in human resources.

"The CEO has been able to diagnose systemic issues in really impressive ways, for example ... the speed and accuracy with which staff predicted the budget deficit," members wrote.

The board praised Thornton for identifying ways to save money and improving the fiscal health of the system.

"This is a tremendous strength," the board wrote.

In a self-evaluation to the board, Thornton agreed that his performance in some areas was "developing," and not "effective" or "highly effective."

Thornton did not give himself high marks for clearly communicating goals to the board, staff, and community. He was also critical of his ability to communicate with the public.

The board shared that concern.

"Many stakeholders are starting to disengage or to grow frustrated with the perceived lack of action and responsiveness — particularly in cases when the CEO affirms his interest in pursuing certain initiatives and strategies and does not follow through," members wrote.

They cited as examples a failure to collaborate with people in the community on grant applications. The board also says Thornton didn't communicate well with board members.

They said Thornton sometimes failed to respond to emails or to requests for discussion, and "often struggles to give detailed, concrete, specific, and at times consistent, responses to questions."

Kalman Hettleman, a longtime advocate for education, has been a Thornton critic.

"Given all the very strong negatives in the details," he said, "the final grade appears to be grade inflation."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

egreen@baltsun.com

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