Less than two years into Gregory Thornton's tenure as city schools chief, some Baltimore civic and political leaders have lost faith in his ability to lead the school system — and some say it's time for him to go.
Thornton's critics — who include legislators, faith leaders and education advocates — say he has sowed division among schools, has failed to articulate a clear vision for the future and hasn't been transparent about budget issues. Nearly two decades of progress in improving the city schools will be lost, they say, unless the school board takes action.
City leaders have been talking privately for several months about his leadership and their concern that the schools are not improving at a critical time for the city, according to interviews with more than two dozen people. Many said they hoped the board would ask Thornton to leave. Now some are speaking openly about their dissatisfaction with him.
"Now is the time to make a change in the leadership in the school system," said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. "At the end of the day, our utmost focus has to be on what is best for the young people of Baltimore and the communities that are fighting for their success."
Thornton, who has introduced efficiencies in operations and reduced operating costs, continues to have the support of the school board, according to its president, Marnell Cooper. Thornton's four-year contract runs through June 2018.
"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.
Thornton says he has every intention of staying.
"My plans and commitment to the district have not changed," he said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. "I will continue the work that is needed to ensure that every student in this city is given an excellent and equitable education that prepares them for college and career."
Thornton supporters say he should not be blamed for problems he inherited. Cooper said Thornton helped fix "a significant budget gap last year which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $108 million. He has also helped us with reducing our costs and doing an independent audit for the health insurance which saved us another $4 million."
But Glenna Huber, clergy co-chair of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, a coalition of churches and community groups, said BUILD has heard from parents, educators, foundations and business leaders who see a problem.
The coalition believes "Dr. Thornton is failing to unite parents, teachers and the community at large to move our students forward," Huber said. "The school board is complicit in its failure to take action in the face of this lack of leadership."
Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, a longtime education advocate and former school board member, said the board should take immediate action to get rid of Thornton.
"Dr. Thornton has been in office for over 18 months, and he has not yet provided any kind of operational plan to improve academic instruction, particularly in literacy. We have been waiting, waiting and waiting, and there have been only been empty promises and generalities," Hettleman said.
A former Milwaukee school superintendent, Thornton was appointed by the school board in the spring of 2014 and took charge of the school system in July of that year.
Since that time, he says, he has developed a five-year strategic plan, started renovating and building new schools, expanded arts and sports programs, provided free meals for all students, and begun to ensure accurate data collection. An initiative for which he is praised was the restoration of arts programs to schools.
"With the support of the board, my staff, and the community, we've developed creative and sustainable solutions to some major challenges," he said.
Few urban school superintendents survive long in a job that requires a mix of business, political and education acumen. However, Thornton, who earns $290,000 a year, has garnered little loyalty or support from community leaders.
He is considered affable and friendly, and people like Thornton personally, said Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat. It's another story professionally, she said.
Glenn wants Thornton to leave, she said, because the city must think first about the students.
"Education is really a ticket out of poverty and crime," she said. "We are at a crossroads, and we can turn this around with the right leadership."
Thornton has 21/2 years left on his contract, and it's likely that the board would have to buy him out if it asked him to leave. Glenn said she hopes the school board will appoint someone who is local.
Critics say evidence of stalled progress is clear in both the hard numbers on academic achievement and what critics describe as a loss of energy in the administration and lack of direction. Graduation rates are flat and dropout rates are up, they note.
Expectations were low when the first results from standardized tests known as PARCC were released last fall, but city results were so poor that a school board member at the time called the scores "a call to action."
Less than 15 percent of students in grades four through nine passed the math test, and less than 25 percent of students in grades three through eight passed the English test.
Additionally, when Thornton presented his academic goals to the board recently, it refused to approve them because the goals were so modest. For example, Thornton said he wanted test scores to rise 1 percentage point a year.
Charter school operators sued the school system last fall, alleging that the district fails to fund their schools in accordance with state law. Supporters said Thornton is standing up for what is best for the regular public schools, but charter school leaders say Thornton has refused to address their concerns or compromise. This week, the district filed a counterclaim.
"I really can't imagine it getting any worse that it is now," said Bobbi MacDonald, a longtime city resident and founder of the City Neighbors charter schools.
Charter schools worked well with the school system for years, MacDonald said, until everything fell apart recently.
"There needs to be a change," she said. "We need leadership that knows how to create a culture where folks have ownership and innovation is allowed to thrive."
Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said a parent recently told her that she used to believe the system was "marching forward and getting better." But in the last couple of years, "that kind of hope and optimism has disappeared," McIntosh said.
McIntosh said she wants parents to trust in the system again. "I am looking to the board to take a moment and say, 'We are losing momentum. We need to get our momentum back,'" she said.
Others say not all of the problems are Thornton's fault. "My sense is that the situation is far more layered than some people may know," said the Rev. Heber Brown, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore.
He noted that managing and funding the city schools are also the responsibility of the governor, and suggested the business community help support schools.
Other advocates say the answer to better school management is more mayoral control. Of particular concern is the 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. Some educators questioned whether those students went to better-performing schools in neighboring districts.
The reduced enrollment will result in a loss of $25 million in state funding for next school year.
"The enrollment is indicative of people voting [with] their feet," said Karen Webber, director of the Education and Youth Development program at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.
Webber said the system has not been transparent about its performance data and has mishandled some suspensions. The community is no longer at the table, she said.
The Maryland Disabilities Law Center is concerned about the handling of special-education cases. Leslie Margolis, managing attorney for the education unit, said she has had more difficulty helping her clients get issues resolved quickly.
"That is concerning to us, a harbinger that things are not working as they should," she said.