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Baltimore schools chief gets critical performance evaluation
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October 22, 2015
Reflecting on Gregory Thornton’s first year as Baltimore schools CEO, many agree that he’s an affable administrator who has faced enormous challenges on the job.
Many disagree, however, on whether he’s the right man for the job.
Thornton, who took over the 84,000-student district on July 1, 2014, has confronted a budget gap, school closures and a dispute over arming school police, among other issues. The way he’s tackled those challenges has drawn criticism about a lack of vision, transparency and follow-through.
“Dr. Thornton has lost the momentum of real reform that we built collectively over the past decades,” said Andrew Foster Connors, co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, an advocacy group led by clergy.
The city school board chose Thornton, who was superintendent of Milwaukee’s schools, over a veteran administrator in the Baltimore school system. Board members say he was picked for his experience in working at all levels of a school district and his ability to create an efficient operation and build a strong team. In those areas, he’s on the right track, they and others say.
But even some who subscribe to his philosophy — couched in phrases such as “theory of action” and a “standard of care” — say his plan to move the city forward is not resonating.
“I think that the assumption is, in a town where people don’t know education, you can get away with high-level conversations,” said school board president Shanaysha Sauls, who led the board’s efforts to hire Thornton. “But in a town where people are really sophisticated and committed, and people are really tired and they feel a sense of urgency, you have to give them more. And we need more.”
Thornton, 60, acknowledges the hurdles he has faced. “There are more challenges than I thought, certainly,” he said in a recent interview.
Still, he maintains that he is a “perfect fit” for the school district. He says the vision for city schools is as much the community’s responsibility as his, which his why he spent the past year in meetings and schools. And he suggests it was unrealistic to expect that he would quickly roll out a new vision for the district.
“Some may say, ‘We should have started on Sept. 1. This is the new vision.’ Hell, I couldn’t even find the buildings on Sept. 1,” Thornton said. “I’m going to have a vision for something I haven’t even found yet? That’d be presumptuous of me.”
Thornton’s supporters note that he walked into an unusual convergence of financial, political and social upheaval, inheriting a slate of challenges that required him to calm waters before he could make waves.
He closed a $108 million budget gap that required the first layoffs in more than a decade, faced off with a new Republican governor over $30 million in state aid cuts, and adjusted academic policies and financial practices that many said were a drain on the district’s budget.
Amid budget constraints, he has pushed through long-desired programs such as art and extracurricular activities. And, many note, he’s done it with a smile and a sense of optimism.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, chair of the Education and Youth Committee, has concerns about how the new administration has handled layoffs and school closures. She successfully lobbied Thornton to reverse the closing of Abbottston Elementary in her district. But he shows promise for the future, she says.
“In the midst of all of this, there’s been a lot of frustration, but he’s coping with what he’s inherited,” she said. “Going forward, we should see more of Dr. Thornton and less of the legacy.”
Thornton, who has a four-year contract and makes $290,000 a year, has begun to build his own legacy through initiatives such as restoring arts to schools.
“Even as he has shifted his focus to putting out other fires, that has been something he has very much been committed to,” said Julia Di Bussolo, who heads the organization Arts Every Day. “There is some tremendous momentum that has been started when it comes to equity and access to the arts in Baltimore.”
Some say Thornton has been underestimated because he has a gregarious nature and is walking in the shadow of a boisterous reform superintendent, his predecessor Andrés Alonso.
Tom Wilcox, who heads the Baltimore Community Foundation, called Thornton an “effective partner” in key initiatives, including the creation of 11 early childhood education centers. Wilcox said Thornton’s administrative team has reached out to the philanthropic community more than previous administrations did.
“My experience is that he’s a manager,” Wilcox said. “Instead of talking about the big picture, he works slowly toward it. It would be a mistake to mistake Dr. Thornton’s affability for weakness.”
But critics, including parents and politicians, fear that Thornton’s affability masks weakness and will slow major reforms.
Thornton’s handling of an inherited $70 million structural deficit sparked outrage among school and city leaders. The City Council refused to vote on the budget until he explained why school-based staff were included in layoffs after he had said the layoffs would be limited to the central office.
A legislative push to arm school police also had Thornton at odds with officials. State lawmakers kicked the proposal back because his administration failed to vet it with the community. He then unveiled a redeployment strategy in April, promising forums that month; they have not yet been held.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the school police bill and budgeting decisions reflect “haphazard policy adjustments” that have come to frustrate many.
“There is room for improvement and growth to bring stakeholders to the table so we can appreciate how these decisions are being made, who they will impact, and ways to better mitigate the consequences,” Ferguson said.
And Thornton’s decision to close Langston Hughes Elementary as part of a plan to shut underused buildings — while keeping Abbottston Elementary open — is fueling criticism that his decisions are political and represent a belief that small schools do not have value. The Langston Hughes Community Association is challenging the district’s decision before an administrative judge.
Will McKenna, executive director of the charter operator Afya Baltimore Inc., said all signs point to one conclusion. “The school board has made a mistake,” said McKenna, who has run both traditional and charter schools and watched superintendents come and go since 1991.
McKenna said Thornton’s team seems overwhelmed by the issues of instruction and curriculum, principal leadership, inspiring families to enroll — doing whatever it takes to pump more money into schools and directly to children.
“There is a complete disconnect between Dr. Thornton and senior leadership and the reality of what’s happening in our schools,” McKenna said. “Dr. Thornton would prefer to cheerlead and tell everyone that things are great, that things are going to get better. The issues are far too complex for platitudes.”
Community leaders fear stagnation at a time when officials need to move important matters forward, including a $1 billion plan to rebuild schools and a new curriculum.
And they don’t want the district’s signs of progress to dissipate. The graduation rate has reached 70 percent, dropout rates are at a near-record low of 11 percent and student achievement has drastically improved.
Foster Connors of BUILD said Thornton has lost ground in critical areas such as community engagement, budget transparency, supporting principals, and fully grasping the impact the $1 billion buildings plan will have in revitalizing the city.
“We think it’s incumbent on the school board to get the Baltimore city school system back on track. Our biggest concern is that Baltimore children can’t afford to lose ground at this point,” he said. “We’re still asking the question if [Thornton’s] the one, or if we should wait for another one.”
Many say Thornton’s decision-making lacks direction; communication from his administration has been described as “deplorable.” In the absence of transparency, many say, decisions seem arbitrary and out of touch.
Melanie Hood-Wilson, parent of a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, said that while she is happy about Thornton’s new arts program, it has lacked depth. She said she left a town hall meeting where “there was a wonderful feeling in the room but too little substance to feel confidence in his plan.”
Hood-Wilson, who has been a teacher, helped start a charter school and led the system’s parent group in the district, said she has heard a lot of disappointment expressed about Thornton’s tenure.
“Every conversation I have with a stakeholder, internal and external, seems to include disappointment and dissatisfaction,” she said. “If there is not improvement, the question is, will he be shown the door or will he find it on his own?”
The system’s interaction with charter schools and principals offers a closer look at recent tests of Thornton’s leadership.
The citywide coalition of 34 charter schools is battling with the Thornton administration over funding for next year, rejecting an offer of $9,387 per pupil.
Thornton acknowledges the impasse, but says the charter schools expected him to solve a dispute that has been brewing for 10 years. The district cannot afford the legally mandated funding formula, which gives charter schools cash in lieu of services from the central office, he said. Officials have said that doing so would hurt traditional schools.
Charter leaders say the district hasn’t made a good-faith effort to figure out a way to fund all schools at levels where they can thrive.
Jocelyn Kehl, executive director of the Coalition of Baltimore Public Charter Schools, believes the biggest challenge facing the district is “a lack of vision” from Thornton’s administration.
“We need more quality school options for Baltimore, and charter schools are one strategy for getting there,” she said. “The system needs to view charters as partners in the work. For that to happen, funding needs to follow the child. We would like to see that spirit embraced for all schools.”
Meanwhile, an exodus of strong principals signals frustration among school leaders, political and union leaders say.
Among them, to the dismay of many, is Mark Bongiovanni. He was principal at Gilmor Elementary — located in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested — and led the school community through the unrest that followed.
Bongiovanni resigned his post after saying that he did not receive support from the administration, even though his school opened with several vacancies. The 17-year-veteran of the system, who was named a “transformational principal” — a distinguished group chosen last year — said Thornton’s team identified challenges at his school, including attendance, but never provided support to tackle them.
“I’m a really trusting person. I thought, ‘This is our leadership, they want what’s best for us. … They’re going to help us get on our feet,'” recalled Bongiovanni, who is heading to a principalship in Baltimore County. “And it’s really never happened.”
Thornton agrees that momentum has been lost and that he has not pleased everyone. But he says he has had to pause to overhaul the district’s reforms and see whether they can be sustained.
“The reality is dollars,” he said.
He said he has had to refine policies driven by autonomy and accountability that gave the district fast results but also had serious repercussions.
For instance, he said, the autonomy that principals were given to choose their staff created a surplus pool of displaced educators that cost the district more than $15 million. And the accountability standards that led hundreds of principals to leave the system created instability and inequities in the district.
“There has to be an intersection between urgency and our ability to maintain the change, and we are struggling,” Thornton said. He has attempted to rebound by bringing some decision-making back to the central office.
Helen Atkinson, director of the Teachers’ Democracy Project, said she believes that move is misguided.
“To undermine a leader by making decisions for them, anyone with any possibility to move will leave,” Atkinson said. “And those who will be left are the ones who will just jump when they say jump, and those are not leaders. They don’t fight for teachers. They can’t run a school.”
Thornton said his decisions have been driven by one group above all others: students.
“I’m capturing their goals and not the goals of a community that may not be part of the world they live in,” he said.
Thornton takes pride in data showing that more Baltimore students are college- and career-ready. This year, he said, more city students are going to college and the amount of scholarship money has increased.
Still, publicizing such progress has been a challenge, he acknowledged.
Eddie Hawkins, who served as the student commissioner on the school board this past year, described Thornton’s year as a “work in progress.”
“People are not going to always get their way, but they should remember that Dr. Thornton cares about students the way that he cares about his own children,” said Hawkins, who accompanied Thornton on his listening tour. “I think the things that he heard this year, he will use to get better next year.”
Asked whether the board made a mistake in hiring Thornton, Sauls, who will step down from the school board June 30, said, “The only reason to look back is to figure out how we best move forward.”
She does not think the board is at the point of severing ties with Thornton and believes he will improve.
“Both sides decided to form this [relationship], and both sides will decide to end it,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”
Following is an article run by Baltimore Sun on proposed school closings in Baltimore.
A City Council committee declined Tuesday to approve hundreds of millions of dollars for Baltimore’s schools, saying education officials had misled the council to believe layoffs would be limited to central office staff — then sent pink slips to 59 school-based employees.
Members of council’s Budget Committee said they were demanding answers from schools CEO Gregory Thornton on how he’s handling the layoffs that school officials said were needed to close a multimillion-dollar budget hole. They said they would meet again Friday to consider the school system’s budget.
A school system official told the panel that the downsizing was complicated by union contracts that allowed some laid-off workers to “bump” into the jobs of others.
“You’ve traumatized people because there was a lack of communication,” City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton told school officials testifying before the committee. “You’re not communicating with people. How dare you blame it on collective bargaining? It’s so disrespectful. It’s disheartening.”
Dawana Sterrette, a lobbyist for the school system, told the committee that school officials eliminated 119 central office positions to close a budget shortfall, but also cut “several hundred surplus individuals” — full-time teachers and staff who are on the system’s books, but have no permanent placements.
When the “surplus” staff learned of the layoffs, some invoked union rights to “bump” school-based employees out of their jobs, Sterrette said.
She said system administrators had no choice but to then lay off employees in the schools.
“We must follow the rules of the collective bargaining agreement,” Sterrette said. “Unfortunately, some people that have been in roles deemed essential have been bumped.”
Council members said Thornton never mentioned that the layoffs would affect school-based staff. The committee chair, Helen Holton, said Thornton and other school officials had not been forthright about the impact of the layoffs.
“We were told the cuts were coming from North Avenue,” Holton said. “We were told no cuts were coming from the schools.”
In a letter to top school officials, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she planned to introduce an amendment to the school system’s budget to take “exception to this unannounced, inequitable, and arbitrary series of 59 specific layoffs from school-based budgets in which the laid-off positions still remain funded.”
Clarke asked the school board to rescind the 59 layoff notices. She said they were doing “great damage” to individual schools.
Clarke cited the layoff of Jerrell Bratcher — the director of admissions for the Monarch School in Northeast Baltimore — as an example of an unwise decision. She called him a “founding, essential and exemplary member” of the school.
Community members have rallied around Bratcher after news spread of his layoff. He wrote in a widely circulated letter that he has “worked tirelessly until midnight or around the clock on many days, nights, weekends, Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays to support the students and families of Monarch Academy.”
One of the school’s founding staff members, Bratcher was pulled into a meeting last week and informed that his position was being eliminated due to budget constraints.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Bratcher said the district wasn’t forthright in telling him that his position actually might be filled by someone else.
“If it were budgeted for me, it should be for me,” he said.
School district payroll records list him as a secretary making $40,000, but he said he actually filled more than 15 roles that are integral to the school’s operations, including clerical work, recruitment efforts and even serving as its crossing guard and a substitute teacher when there’s a shortage.
“Any position where there’s a gap, I’ve been there to fill that in,” he said. “Before we had a building, I worked for this school. I’ve had other job offers, but I would rather be here to support our students, our staff.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Holton referred to Bratcher’s situation as evidence that the school system’s handling of the layoffs has been inhumane.
“He was given a slip to say you’re gone,” she told Sterrette. “This speaks to part of what’s wrong with our system. We are more focused on paper and procedure than how we impact the lives of the community. … We have to stop the madness.”
City school officials did not respond to a request for comment on the City Council action nor other criticism Thornton has faced over the layoffs.
Leaders of affected schools have also decried Thornton’s approach to layoffs as infringing on their autonomy and lacking transparency.
Principals slated to lose staff received an email just hours before central office employees were deployed to schools to break the news.
Principals said they were not only told that they were going to lose a staff member they had hired, but that the central office would fill the position with someone of its choosing — a move that reverses a policy of “mutual consent” started under former Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso that allowed principals and staff to agree on a job placement.
At the city school board meeting Tuesday night, there were more calls for Thornton to reverse the layoffs of the 59 school-based staff.
Marc Martin, principal of Commodore John Rodgers School, told the board the staff member he was forced to cut didn’t fit any of the criteria outlined by Thornton for staff who would be laid off. His staff member was in a permanently funded position, supported by the school’s budget.
Martin said district officials argued that while principals may not have kept the people they wanted, they maintained “positional authority.” But a principal’s ability to decide who joins their team is just as important to a school’s success, he said.
“Everyone in this room knows, it’s about the people, not the position,” Martin said.
Parents cited Martin’s ability to make decisions about his staff for the school’s notable progress in the last five years.
They also called the laid-off Commodore employee, staff associate Krystal Henry, everything from a “mother figure” to a key part of the school’s foundation.
“There are people who say we’re waiting for superman. We feel like we’re losing our superwoman,” said parent Barry Armstrong.
Henry also attended the board meeting and asked to keep her job. Her husband, who worked at district headquarters, was also laid off in Thornton’s reorganization of the central office, details of which have yet to be disclosed to the public.
“I think I spend more time with [children at Commodore] than I do with my own,” Henry told the school board. “I don’t know what I can do, but I am asking for this decision to be reversed.”