Will Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises stay or will she go?

After nearly eight years in the job of leading one of the state’s most complex school systems, it wouldn’t be surprising if she were ready to move on to a less-demanding job when her contract expires on June 30, 2024.

Santelises has already lasted longer as the head of the city schools than any other leader for the past three decades, an unusual feat in a city that has seen chief executive officers come and go frequently, and in a country where urban educators routinely turn over in two or three years. In the 30 years before Santelises, there was only one Baltimore City schools CEO who had lasted more than four years — Andres Alonso, who did a six-year stint from 2007 to 2013.

Santelises’ contract requires her to reach an agreement with the city school board by March 31 about whether she’ll stay or go. That’s unusual in Maryland, where state law requires most school district superintendents to notify the school board by Feb. 1 whether they want another four-year contract and a final decision to be made by March 1.

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Neither the school board nor Santelises are speaking about the behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Santelises declined to comment. The school board chair, Ronald McFadden, issued a statement.

“We are grateful for Dr. Santelises’ dedicated service to our students and community,” McFadden said. “We continue to collaborate with the CEO regarding her future but don’t have an announcement to make at this time. We look forward to productive discussions in the best interest of city schools.”

The silence from Santelises and the board in February is unusual. In most cases, a superintendent and a board will come to some conclusion about whether the superintendent will get another contract by late fall, nearly nine months before the end of the contract. If the superintendent is leaving, the board will announce it is beginning a national search for a replacement.

But that traditional timeline for Maryland superintendents hasn’t been followed in this case. Santelises could have asked for another four-year contract, or there could be a succession plan being finalized. When she was hired, the decision was made behind closed doors, without a national search.

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If she leaves on June 30, she would leave at a time of stability. She has recently finalized a three-year contract with the teachers, made gains on test scores and has a stable leadership team in place, except for the sudden recent departure of the chief of schools, John Davis. The average length of time a large city superintendent serves in the job is about six years, although the tenure for women is shorter.

Staying, Santelises would face the uncertainty of local elections. Mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon, for example has been a vocal critic of Santelises, saying that she believes it is time for new leadership. While Dixon can’t fire Santelises, over time she could appoint enough new school board members to oust her.

Meanwhile, Santelises has batted off intense criticism from Fox45, which has called for her departure, and she seems determined to leave on her own terms.

In a 2022 interview with The Banner, Santelises said she would not leave before she felt schools had moved past the pandemic and started to show signs of sustained progress. She had said she hopes city parents will soon see many more schools headed in the right direction with strong principals and good teachers, even before there is a leap in test scores.

“I want this community to be prouder of their schools than they are. And I want them to see an upward trajectory,” she said in June 2022. “Not that they are going to be perfect. Not that we will achieve everything. I think Baltimore families deserve that and are owed that.”

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Under Santelises, scores have increased on the English language arts tests each year the test has been given over the past eight years, even during the pandemic. In the past two years, the gains city students made in the elementary and middle grades outpaced the statewide average gains in scores.

While Santelises has been criticized for math scores, which took a nosedive during the pandemic, those scores have been slowly rising.

Santelises has focused her energy on improving the curriculum. The city was an early adopter of the science of reading, a phonics-based approach to learning to read, that the state is now requiring of all school systems.