The shifting story of the Santelises search

When it comes to their secret search for a new city schools CEO, the school board wasn't even transparent in explaining its lack of transparency. That's the unsettling conclusion to be drawn from school board Chairman Marnell Cooper's shifting story about how the board managed to hire a search firm without leaving a trace in public records. The more we hear about how the board went about its business the more concern it raises about the body's commitment to public accountability and the possibility that the tactics it used could be adapted to any situation in which members might find scrutiny inconvenient.

Baltimore's now-former schools CEO Gregory Thornton was the subject of mounting criticism for months, with some lawmakers and advocates openly calling for his ouster. As recently as February, Mr. Cooper said publicly that Mr. Thornton's job was secure. "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," Mr. Cooper said then. Mr. Thornton gave no hint that anything was amiss either: "My plans and commitment to the district have not changed," he said at the time.


But that wasn't true. The board met with Mr. Thornton in December to inform him that it would begin a search for a replacement the following month.

When the board announced early this month that Mr. Thornton would step down and be replaced by former system chief academic officer Sonja Santelises, Mr. Cooper said that a private firm had taken on the task of hiring a search firm to vet candidates for the job so that the board would not have to take a public vote on the matter.


But that wasn't quite true either. The "private firm" was none other than the board's attorney, who was then reimbursed for the $33,000 cost of hiring the executive search company entreQuest. The board has a written policy that expenditures over $25,000 must be subject to a public vote, but Mr. Cooper essentially ignored the requirement with an ends-justify-the-means rationalization. He and his fellow board members wanted to keep the search quiet to avoid the "distraction" it might have caused teachers, parents and students, and so they did.

"Anything we want to keep confidential, we go through our attorney," Mr. Cooper said, which begs the question of what else the board has felt — or someday might feel — the need to keep confidential. If the board thinks it's appropriate to use attorney-client privilege to shield its selection of a search firm for a new CEO, what's to stop it from handling any other procurement that way? Might the board want to avoid the "distraction" of requesting bids for new textbooks or office supplies?

That's why we're glad to see City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young call for a hearing so that members of the board can answer questions about the matter publicly. "A search process that raises as many questions as the one carried out by the school board unfairly allows concerns about that process to color perceptions of the new CEO," Mr. Young wrote in a resolution due to be introduced tonight . "The covert nature of the search unfortunately lends itself to parents and legislators questioning her appointment right out of the gate."

We would say it leads to many more questions than that. We agree that Mr. Thornton had to go and that Ms. Santelises is a promising choice to replace him. But we cannot excuse a flawed process just because it led to a good result. The issue at hand was hardly a matter of national security; it was a search for a new CEO, something that districts across the state and nation manage to handle without outright deception. The board's changing stories and unapologetic self justification lead to questions about whether this incident reveals a bigger problem in terms of its conception of the public's right to know what business is done in its name. Even if Ms. Santelises turns out to be the answer to Baltimore schools' problems, the board needs to understand that the way it went about finding and vetting her was unacceptable. We urge Mr. Young and his colleagues on the council to make that as clear as they possibly can.