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Educationby Fern Shen9:00 amMay 4, 20160

At Baltimore schools, Thornton out, insider in

Sonja Santelises, a former chief academic officer, will take charge of a school system facing multiple challenges

Above: Less than two years into his four-year contract, Gregory Thornton is out as Baltimore schools CEO. (Fern Shen)

After quietly conducting a national search, the school board has announced it plans to replace Baltimore schools CEO Gregory E. Thornton with Sonja Santelises, a younger candidate who has worked with them before.

Santelises, 48, served as chief academic officer for three years under Thornton’s predecessor, Andres Alonso.

The 61-year-old Thornton, who lasted less than two years on the job, was a career education administrator, most recently serving as chief of Milwaukee’s school system.

Before that he had leadership roles in Winston-Salem, N.C., Philadelphia, Montgomery County and other locations.

Given Baltimore’s history with outside hires who turn out to be short-term – for example, Police Chief Anthony Batts (from Oakland), Baltimore Development Corporation CEO Brenda McKenzie (from Boston), Transportation Director William M. Johnson (from Tallahassee, Fla.), Recreation and Parks Director Ernest Burkeen (from Miami), Chief of Human Resources Ronnie E. Charles (from Suffolk, Va.), Chief of Public Affairs Kevin Harris (from Washington, D.C.), and Chief Information Officer Rico J. Singleton (from Albany, N.Y.) – the city school system may do better with a candidate with some inside cred.

School Board officials, in fact, say they believe Santelises could lead city schools for the next decade.

“This Craziness Must Stop”

Thornton’s ouster comes amid a growing chorus of complaints about him from lawmakers and education advocates, including the faith and community group BUILD, who said he lacked vision and failed to act decisively amid a number of crises.

Sonja Santelises. (The Education Trust)

Sonja Santelises. (The Education Trust)

Speaking from the floor of the Senate in March, Sen. Bill Ferguson (46h District) called for Thornton to resign or be fired after a city schools police officer was caught on video kicking and slapping a student.

That school officials could not immediately identify the child as a city school student (at first, they denied that he was) came as the last straw, Ferguson said.

“This is beyond unbelievable. The board must act today,” he later wrote on his Facebook page. “The City Schools leadership no longer has any grasp on the district. This craziness must stop now.”

He later cited a highly critical performance review of Thornton as further evidence that he had to go.

Longtime city education advocate and former School Board member Kalman R. “Buzzy” Hettleman was another critic.

Among the crises during Thornton’s brief tenure were a lawsuit filed by charter school operators, an enrollment drop of 1,900 students, rising drop-out rates and abysmal student performance on new standardized tests.

Less than 25% of students in grades three through eight passed the English test, and less than 15% of students in grades four through nine passed the math test.

Thornton will step down on Friday, and Tammy Turner, the system’s chief legal officer, will take over as interim SEO.

Santelises, who has been working at the D.C.-based think tank Education Trust, will assume the top job on July 1.

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