The secret superintendent search

The Baltimore City school board's surprise announcement Tuesday that it had selected Sonja Santelises to replace Gregory Thornton as city schools CEO may well be good news for the system and its schoolchildren. Ms. Santelises, who served for three years as the city's chief academic officer under former schools CEO Andrés Alonso, is intimately familiar with the challenges the system faces, and by all accounts she brings excellent credentials to the job. However, we are troubled by the secret process that led to her appointment, which calls into question the board's commitment to transparency on a matter of great public import.

As The Sun's Erica L. Green reported, the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners had been in talks with prospective replacements for Mr. Thornton for months prior to settling on Ms. Santelises. That in itself was not unusual — for a variety of reasons many candidates for such jobs prefer to keep the fact that they have been interviewed confidential. What was different in this case was that the board had not announced its search and went so far as to require applicants to sign non-disclosure agreements promising not to reveal that Baltimore was even looking for a new schools chief. It's one thing for the board to withhold the identities of people being considered for a job, but quite another to hide the fact that a search was underway at all.


Ms. Green reported that historically, superintendent searches in the city — including the one that brought Mr. Thornton to Baltimore — have been announced publicly with only the names of applicants kept secret. So why wasn't that pattern followed in Ms. Santelises' case? Considering that the board's last choice for CEO worked out so poorly that he's being bought out of his contract two years early — at a cost of $290,000 — we can't say we have much trust in its ability to make such a decision with no public oversight.

School board chairman Marnell Cooper said the search was conducted in secret because board members didn't want it to become a distraction for teachers, students and administrators. But if the reported dissatisfaction with Mr. Thornton's leadership was as pervasive as the board's actions suggest, might not staff and student morale actually have improved if people knew board members were moving to address their concerns?


We stress that our complaint is directed at the process the board followed rather than at Ms. Santelises. Based on what we know of her past involvement with the school system, she could turn out to be an excellent CEO. In addition to knowing the system, her professional expertise in improving the academic performance of low-income and minority students coincides with the city schools' greatest needs. Student test scores rose during her previous stint in Baltimore, and as a former teacher and protege of Mr. Alonso she was a tireless advocate for reforms aimed at improving the quality of classroom instruction.

On top of that her own children attend charter schools here, which demonstrates her dedication to the district and may also give her added insight into the thorny issues underlying the city's long-running dispute with charter school operators over funding levels. Her broad experience and sense of urgency about what needs to be done to get the city's schools back on track could make her the ideal person to address the problems that bedeviled Mr. Thornton's tenure, which included the lack of a comprehensive strategic plan for moving the system forward, low test scores, poor staff and student morale and perpetually troubled financial management.

We have great hopes that Ms. Santelises will make progress toward solving these difficult problems, but that doesn't change the fact that the process that led to her appointment should have been more open. If the school board had publicly announced a nationwide search for a new superintendent, who is to say how many other candidates equally or even better qualified might have offered their services? What might the public have told officials that could have improved their ability to select the right candidate? How large a reservoir of goodwill might Ms. Santelises be starting with if her selection had been the culmination of a more transparent process?

The selection of a new CEO with Ms. Santelises' qualifications should be an occasion for unalloyed hope for the city schools' future. But the board that bungled the selection of her predecessor managed to bungle that, too.