Why is Sonja Santelises Still Schools CEO?

Nineteen months into this seemingly endless pandemic, many Americans’ jobs have been decimated. Baltimore Schools CEO Sonja Santelises retains her high-profile position, though. It’s worth asking why, because the school system Santelises runs continues to fail Baltimore students.

This is a school system where students have been promoted, regardless of how much academic content they’ve mastered. High school juniors are performing at elementary school levels, including one student who was “doing math at a first-grade level.”

In that context, students must be doing abominably to earn failing grades. And the number of failing grades has notably skyrocketed since early 2020. Pre-Covid, “26% of . . . second to fifth grade [students in Baltimore City Public Schools], had one or more failing grades. Now, that number has doubled to 52%.” Similarly, “about 35% of [Baltimore City] middle school students . . . had ‘one or more failing grades’ [pre-Covid]. This year, that number was about 62%.” At the high school level, 41% of Baltimore City public school students “made below a D grade point average during the first three quarters of the 2020-2021 school year."

Last year, “City Schoolsgraduation rate, for the first time in six years, dropped below 70 percent.” This is noteworthy in a district that features a student who passed three high school classes, yet “ranks near the top half of his class with a 0.13 grade point average.” Since Santelisesarrival in 2016, SAT scores and college enrollment are . . . down.” Baltimore City Public Schools graduates also represent 70% of Baltimore City Community College’s (BCCC) student body; ninety-three percent of BCCC’s incoming students now require remedial (i.e., pre-college level) classes, up from 80% a decade ago. These are not the hallmarks of a successful school system.

The picture looks still grimmer when Baltimore City is placed in a national context. Baltimore City students last took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” in 2019. At that time, 15% of 4th graders proved to be proficient in math, while 13% were in reading. Only 10% of 8th graders were proficient in math, while 15% were in reading.

Baltimore City students not only performed worse than the national average on NAEP, but they also performed worse than students in other large, urban districts. Among 26 large districts, Baltimore performed worse than 24 others. Only Detroit “performed significantly lower” than Baltimore City. NAEP is next scheduled to be given in 2022, and given widespread learning loss during the pandemic, there’s no reason to think Baltimore City students will score higher. Rather, it’s likely their scores will be lower.

This is also a district that has repeatedly modeled immoral behavior for students. Beyond lying about the number of enrolled students, administrators at Augusta Fells Savage Institute for Visual Arts “improperly changed grades and pressured teachers to give students grades they did not earn. . . . [and] students were scheduled in classes that did not exist and/or that they did not attend.”

Taxpayers pay handsomely for this educational fiasco. In 2019, Baltimore City’s school system became “the third most-funded school system among the 100 largest in America.” With the help of auditors at OpenTheBooks.com, Forbes magazine found that the district spends $1.4 billion, which amounts to $18,000 per pupil.

Where is that money going, and what is there to show for it? It’s clearly not being spent to ensure students’ strong academic performance and readiness for college or career. Rather, administrators continue to be paid lavishly for rock-bottom outcomes. First and foremost among them is Sonja Santelises, who out-earns the U.S. Secretary of Education, Maryland's governor, and the superintendent of wealthy Montgomery County’s public school system.

Maryland taxpayers pay Santelises “$339,000 [annually], which is up $22,000 in three years. . . . [making her] the states highest-paid school leader.” Last year, Santelises’ salary became “the highest salary ever earned by a Maryland superintendent . . . [and her benefits package includes] a car allowance.” Of course, that might be less jaw-dropping if the U.S. Census Bureau hadn’t reported that the median individual in Baltimore City earned $31,271 during that same period.

 If Baltimore parents had firing authority, Schools CEO Sonja Santelises would already be job hunting. But Mayor Brandon Scott and his school board appointees — who could actually enact change — have ignored parents’ calls for Santelises to resign. So really, what is it that they like so much about Santelises? It can’t be her performance, because that’s been a costly failure.