Philadelphia school official in running for top job here

May 16, 2007|By Sara Neufeld and Liz Bowie | Sara Neufeld and Liz Bowie,Sun reporters

A top Philadelphia school official, Gregory E. Thornton, is in the running to become the chief executive officer of Baltimore's school system, according to sources close to him.

"I know he is a front-runner," said Paul G. Vallas, the departing CEO of Philadelphia's schools.

Baltimore school board members have declined to name the candidates they are considering.

Thornton was the deputy superintendent in Montgomery County before leaving in 2004 to become the chief academic officer in Philadelphia, the No. 2 position there.

Vallas said he believes that Thornton will accept the Baltimore job if the city school board offers it to him. He said Thornton is ready to run a school district but wants to remain in the Mid-Atlantic region.

A Philadelphia native, Thornton was one of two finalists last month for the superintendent's job in Seattle, but he withdrew his name from consideration at the last minute. A Philadelphia school spokeswoman said he wanted to stay closer to home.

Thornton also has decided not to pursue the job of interim CEO in Philadelphia. Vallas is leaving after this school year to become superintendent in New Orleans.

Through a Philadelphia school system spokeswoman, Thornton declined to comment yesterday.

Baltimore's school board has spent the past several months looking for a new CEO to lead its 83,000-student system. After schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland stepped down nearly a year ago, Charlene Cooper Boston was given the position on an interim basis, with a contract due to expire June 30.

Boston, a longtime city schools administrator who previously served as superintendent in Wicomico County, has said publicly that she was applying for the job in Baltimore on a permanent basis. Asked yesterday if she remains in the running, she referred questions to the school board chairman, Brian D. Morris. Morris declined to comment.

Later yesterday afternoon, during a City Council hearing on the school system's budget, City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. asked Boston, "You sticking around as the CEO?"

Morris told Harris his question was inappropriate.

"I'm just trying to get some information," Harris replied.

Morris said that "the process is playing itself out," and that personnel matters cannot be discussed in public.

How far the process has played out is unclear. Even if the board has decided on a candidate, it would presumably wish to consult state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who is out of the country until Friday.

In December, the board awarded a Milwaukee-based company, PROACT Search Inc., a $59,000 contract to conduct the hunt for a CEO. The company led a series of forums, focus groups and interviews to determine the qualities that the public wants in a new leader.

However, school board members have said they are not bringing in finalists for public questioning, the procedure followed when two previous CEOs, Robert Booker and Carmen V. Russo, were hired.

Copeland was serving as interim CEO when she was hired suddenly for the permanent job. The board was in the midst of a national search at the time, but members decided they needed stable leadership during a financial crisis. Copeland had to lay off hundreds of employees shortly after being hired.

According to information posted on the Philadelphia school system's Web site, Thornton has more than 25 years of experience in education. He has been a teacher and a principal and served as an assistant superintendent overseeing middle schools in Winston-Salem, N.C. He also oversaw secondary schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district.

In Philadelphia, Thornton's jurisdiction included a group of privately managed schools.

"I would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate for superintendent of Baltimore," Vallas said. "He has an impeccable record."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said he had encouraged the Baltimore school board to hire either Vallas or one of his proteges. He said he considers Vallas - a controversial figure in Philadelphia and previously as Chicago schools chief - "the guru of superintendents." Vallas is credited with raising test scores, but the Philadelphia school system is operating at a deficit.

"I really wanted Vallas at one time to apply for the superintendent's position, but apparently he decided to do this New Orleans thing," Cummings said. "Thornton was his right-hand guy, his No. 2. He's had wonderful experience in Montgomery County. He's been a part of teams that were the best in the country."

Thornton is not related to Alvin L. Thornton, a former Prince George's County school board chair who headed a blue-ribbon panel on school funding several years ago. The panel's recommendations led to the state's landmark Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act to infuse more than $1 billion into classrooms.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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