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Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harris and Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises chat during a tour at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy on the first day of the school year last fall.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harris and Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises chat during a tour at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy on the first day of the school year last fall. (Sun Staff/Baltimore Sun)

There are at least two common reactions to Tuesday night’s decision by the Baltimore City Public Schools’ Board of School Commissioners to approve a four-year contract to CEO Sonja Santelises that will likely make her the top paid school leader in Maryland. The first is: How can a public school system as low-performing as Baltimore’s possibly reward its top administrator with a $27,000 annual raise? The second is: How can it not?

Under Sonja Santelises, there have been noticeable improvements in city schools measured not only by standardized test scores — specifically a two-year boost in English proficiency in PARCC results — but by the firsthand experiences of teachers and parents on the front lines. Both criteria are critically important in evaluating a schools CEO who faces challenges far exceeding those that superintendents in other Maryland subdivisions confront. Add these early signs of progress to the possibility that Baltimore stands to get a significant boost from school reforms and state aid associated with the Kirwan Commission recommendations now pending in Annapolis and there is reason to be optimistic — to a point.

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Sonja Santelises’ tenure has brought a level of stability and back-to-basics rationality to North Avenue that has echoed across this city. And improved test scores, are reassuring, if still underwhelming when compared to suburban neighbors (including those where scores have recently faltered). The new contract makes sense in this light, with so many signs her job has been properly started, even if it has not yet reached its goals. CEO Santelises has raised expectations; she has generated hope. Those might be her most impressive accomplishments to date. And, yet, it is not enough.

Let’s be blunt: Baltimore schools are still far behind in the measure that truly counts — preparing young people for career and life. It doesn’t take a doctorate in education to see that a lot more progress has to be made to view city schools as meeting their potential or to perceive CEO Santelises’ tenure at the helm to have been an unqualified success. She appears to understand this. “Now we are going for the big prize and that is systemic chunks of achievement,” she said Tuesday night. “This was ground-laying work. It is now, ‘How do we increase achievement?’”

As for her $325,000 annual salary, it’s trivial compared to the importance of her work. It’s no exaggeration to suggest the improved school performance is the key to Baltimore’s future. From addressing gun violence to creating jobs, it’s everything. Every youngster who gets a high school diploma, who is properly prepared for employment or college, who has been given the tools to overcome the disadvantages stacked against him or her, is likely one less adverse outcome — one less dropout, one less drug addict, one less criminal on the streets. It’s all very well to throw tax dollars at enterprise zones or beef up the police force or rewrite gun laws, the truly lasting investment, the one with the biggest, longest return, is in children.

Tongues will wag, of course. The Baltimore haters will post their comments on social media. The conservative lawmakers will make their cracks in Annapolis or make claims of the “soft” racism of low expectations while ignoring the “hard” racism of under-funding city schools. How could a city where less than three-quarters of students graduate in four years pay the person in charge of schools so much? Isn’t this the system that can’t heat its schools? Isn’t this the City That Bleeds? They will not see the glass as half-empty, they will see the glass as unworthy of water altogether. What they will ignore is how things got this way (or especially their own role in it): the concentrated poverty, the families destroyed by addiction, the red-lining, the trauma, the lead poisoning, and on and on. And they will miss the spark of a turnaround. They will not see the opportunity. And this is why they are not just wrong, they are blind.

Now comes the hard part. Now comes the “chunks of achievement,” as the CEO might say. We don’t envy Sonja Santelises. She might have the toughest job in the Mid-Atlantic. But she deserves our support. For the time being.

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