Bill would jettison CEO title, restore superintendent to Baltimore school system

If legislation before the General Assembly passes, Baltimore City Public School CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises' title would change to superintendent.
If legislation before the General Assembly passes, Baltimore City Public School CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises' title would change to superintendent. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Twenty-one years ago, Maryland lawmakers decided they wanted the beleaguered Baltimore school system to conduct itself more like a business and less like an educational bureaucracy.

As a symbol of that intent, and as part of a sweeping package of reforms, the General Assembly decreed that the system’s top official would cease being a superintendent and be reborn as a chief executive officer.


Now, several Baltimore lawmakers want to turn back the clock and junk the chief executive title. If the bill were to pass, CEO Sonja Santelises would become a superintendent much like the leaders of Maryland’s 23 county school systems on July 1.

Del. Keith Haynes, the measure’s chief sponsor, said his bill reflects recent changes that have reversed a 1997 state-city partnership to control Baltimore schools and shifted authority back to City Hall. Haynes, a Democrat, said the superintendent title better represents the community’s expectations of its schools.


“It reflects more of an academic role the person has, rather than CEO, which is more in line with corporations,” he said. Haynes acknowledged that there would be some cost to changing the title but said it would be nominal.

Haynes said Thursday that he hasn’t discussed his proposal, which has five co-sponsors from the city House delegation, with the school system. But he said the measure has the support of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

President Marietta English confirmed the union’s support.

“Let’s talk more about the system being a school district and less like a business — where we’re focused on instruction,” she said.

A generation ago, the winds of change were blowing in the opposite direction.

The Baltimore schools were widely viewed as failing. A judge had found the state was failing to live up to its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to city children.

Two leading Baltimore lawmakers, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and the late Del. Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings, led a sweeping reform effort that became the highest-profile issue of the 1997 legislative session. With the support of Nancy S. Grasmick, then-state school superintendent, they brokered a “partnership” under which the state shored up its aid to Baltimore schools in return for a bigger say in how they would be run.

The legislation passed that year divided the power of appointing city school board members between the mayor and governor. As part of the bill, signed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the superintendent became the CEO.

Hoffman, a Democrat who chaired the powerful Senate budget committee at the time, said the change was more than “window dressing.”

“Part of changing the title was that they needed to act as though they were a company,” she said. “It was symbolic to signal that the school system had to stand on its own feet.”

Hoffman, who left the legislature after losing a Democratic primary in 2002, said the system has made tangible improvements. She admitted the idea of corporate efficiency was “something of a pipe dream,” but said she doesn’t see a reason to enact the bill.

“I can’t think of any CEO we’ve had who has ignored the education component,” she said. “I don’t know why you would want to change it back to superintendent because I think that diminishes the role of the CEO.”


Edie House, a spokeswoman for the city school system, said Santelises thought it was premature to comment.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a House member at the time of the 1997 debate, questioned the need for the legislation.

“I don’t think it matters one iota whether it’s superintendent or CEO. Dr. Sonja Santelises knows where the buck stops,” said McIntosh, a Democrat who now chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “I love Delegate Haynes, but I don’t see the point.”

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