GregoryThornton-Sonja Santelises

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Gregory Thorton is being replaced by Sonja Santelises. (Courtesy photos)

The Baltimore school board is replacing the chief executive officer of the city’s schools with an administrator who oversaw academic performance improvements during a previous stint with city schools

Sonja Santelises will replace CEO Gregory Thornton, who steps down on May 6, less than two years into a four-year contract. Santelises starts July 1. Tammy Turner, chief legal counsel, will act as interim CEO.

Santelises served as the system’s chief academic officer from 2010 to 2013 under Andres Alonso, and is credited with putting the system ahead of the curve as the Common Core was rolled out. Since leaving the post, the Baltimore resident has served as vice president of K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank.

“This is one of those times, where it’s not about me, it is really about the potential of this school system,” she said. “I don’t see our schools as being totally incapable and totally dysfunctional. Those are not the people I worked with.

“I worked in a city system that was not perfect, that had incredible challenges, but had critical masses of people who wanted to do right by kids.”

The school system is Maryland’s fourth largest, educating more than 80,000 students in 186 schools, with a $1.2 billion budget.

“We believe Sonja has the ability to lead the district for the next 10 years,” board Chairman Marnell Cooper said. “Her background as an educator is clear, she’s incredibly strong, she understands the challenges of the school system.”

Lawmakers and community advocates have called for Thornton’s ouster in recent months. But supporters argued Thornton, who moved to the city from Milwaukee in 2014, faced financial and operational mishaps and cite his work reducing costs and fixing a budget gap.

“It was an honor working with and serving the students of Baltimore City Schools,” Thornton said in a statement. “In less than two years, we made great progress, and I am proud of the accomplishments.”

Board Chairman Marnell Cooper says the search for Thornton’s replacement, which wasn’t publically announced, began in December.

The board made its offer to Santelises on the last day of the General Assembly session, when lawmakers approved legislation that established a partially elected school board and required one lawmaker from the House of Delegates and the state Senate to take part in selecting the next CEO. Gov. Larry Hogan has not signed the bill and it has not become law.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who called for Thornton’s resignation on the floor of the Senate, said he understood that officials needed to move quickly.

“I am pleased to see the school board take decisive action and demonstrate urgency to move the city schools forward,” he said.