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BALTIMORE (WBFF) — Baltimore City student test scores have dropped to some of the lowest in the country. Meanwhile, the CEO of the school system continues to see her earnings hit new highs.
Project Baltimore dug into Dr. Sonja Santelises’s employment contract and found taxpayers are paying her over $100,000 more than they may have realized.
Baltimore City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises’s employment contract is 19 pages. The contract lays out her responsibilities, expectations, and compensation. When it took effect in 2020, the contract became possibly the most lucrative contract ever signed by one of Maryland’s 24 public school superintendents. But it’s not until you read all 19 pages, that you begin to understand how lucrative it really is.
“What you dug out is significant taxpayer cost that has never had sunshine on it,” said Adam Andrzejewski, the founder of Openthebooks.com
Andrzejewski has spent much of his career reading government employment contracts and is stunned by what Project Baltimore found in this one.
“I think taxpayers will rightfully be upset about what you've uncovered when you follow the money,” Andrzejewski told Project Baltimore.
During Dr. Santelises’s contract year that ended on June 30, 2022, she earned a base salary of $333,125. For a school leader, that salary is the highest in the state among those 24 public school districts. But if you continue to read through her contract, you’ll see there’s a lot of added compensation. Every year, she gets a $9,600 car allowance. She also gets $53,300 in “Deferred Compensation” towards retirement, which is in addition to her state pension retirement.
“We all knew about the gold-plated public employee pension plans, but who knew? Oh, no. The taxpayers were funding tens of thousands of dollars into a second retirement plan,” said Andrzejewski.
According to the CEO’s contract, she gets 59 paid days off a year. The breakdown is 38 vacation days, 18 sick days and 3 personal days. That’s nearly 12 weeks of taxpayer-funded paid time off, which does not include the 13 paid holidays throughout the year.
“So, it's 25 percent of the year,” said Andrzejewski. “Almost one out of every four days she's paid to stay home.”
But what if the CEO doesn’t take 12 weeks off? Her contract says, she can cash out much of what she doesn’t use. During her last contract year, she cashed out $48,750 in unused paid leave. Add that to the rest of her compensation, and Dr. Santelises collected a total of $444,875.
“It’s milking taxpayers like dairy cows,” Andrzejewski told Project Baltimore. “We put a premium on those leaders, locally, that say they're going to educate our children. And so, we need to hold, at the end of the day, we need to hold them accountable.”
And her contract does hold her accountable. Page 13 says the school board will evaluate the CEO, in part, on how she “demonstrated improvement in the academic performance of students in the City Schools.” But is that happening? Graduation rates, attendance and college enrollment are all lower than when the CEO took office in 2016.
Meanwhile, the most recent federal test scores, released last month, show Baltimore City students scored an all-time low since testing began in 2009, when compared to the Large City National average.
Anirban Basu is an economist who served on the Baltimore City School Board from 2005 to 2011. When Project Baltimore interviewed him earlier this year, Basu defended the CEO’s earnings, saying Baltimore City is the hardest school system in the state to run. And in her time, the city as a whole has struggled, especially after the riots following the death of Freddie Gray.
“Since 2015, Baltimore has been in socio-economical disequilibrium,” Basu said in April. “Sonja Santelises has been presiding over that school system for this period. It’s tough. It’s tough to make improvements when times are like this. And so, what I’m suggesting, is it’s conceivable that what she has done is stem decay that otherwise would have transpired.”
Dr. Santelises contract was approved by the school board. We reached out to the school board, which declined an interview but said in a statement:
Each day, our more than 10,000 employees – including teachers - support the students of Baltimore City with compassion, expertise, dedication, and care. Their salaries are not gifts – they are monies earned by working to improve the lives of children. The salaries of those hard-working employees reflect the market for those positions.
Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises has been an incredible champion for City Schools for nearly six years. Our CEO is worth every cent of her salary, aligning with her experience, skills, and education. The CEO received a pay increase when she signed her second contract in 2020, accounting for the difference between her 2016 salary and her pay rate to date. Any benefits received since are either part of the contract or in line with benefits available to district staff - based on their union or non-union affiliation.
As stated back in April, WBFF-TV continually seeks to undermine the CEO’s tenure and the hard work of our employees by cherry picking data and tying it to her compensation, as well as the pay of 10,000 employees. Once again, we must clarify its so-called analysis with basic, indisputable facts.
ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS AND MATH PERFORMANCE - From 2016 to 2019, City Schools recorded multi-year increases in student achievement on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment used to assess whether students are meeting Maryland’s College and Career-Ready Standards expectations by grade-level. For example:
City Schools demonstrated academic performance improvement for the “all students group” for ELA and Math on the most recent 2019 MD Report Card for elementary, middle and high schools.
City Schools doubled the number of schools that improved their English Language Arts scores during that period, from 40 to 106 schools.
English Language Arts gains over three years - white students (9.2 percentage points); black students (4 percentage points); and LatinX students (8.7 percentage points)
Math gains over three years - white students (6.4 percentage points); black students (.2 percentage point); and LatinX (1.8 percentage points)
KINDERGARTEN READINESS - According to data submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) in 2019-2020, the 3,600 children enrolled in City Schools pre-kindergarten classroom, either traditional or Judy Center, were between nine to 33 percentage points more likely to be ready for kindergarten than students in other environments in Baltimore City, such as a third-party childcare center, a family childcare center, home care, or another public setting.
ATTENDANCE - City Schools’ attendance rate was more than 87 percent annually from 2017 to 2020 and chronic absence had declined to its lowest level since 2016 at 36.2%.
PERFORMANCE SINCE THE PANDEMIC
FOUR YEAR DROP-OUT RATE - The four-year drop-out rate has decreased for three consecutive years - 15.9 percent in 2019; 13.1 percent in 2020; and 12.5 percent in 2021.
FOUR-YEAR GRADUATION RATE - City Schools four-year graduation rate increased to 72.2 percent in 2018, the year before changes in the state’s graduation assessment requirements, which decreased our graduation rate to 70.2 percent. Since then, the district’s four-year graduation rate has remained within one percentage point of 70 percent year-over year, even during a crippling pandemic.
ENROLLMENT - Even with the challenges of the pandemic, our enrollment total has been stable over the last two years following five years of decline (from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020). Many of the trends observed before the pandemic are returning to similar levels regarding entry and exit patterns for the district. Looking at entry and exit, overall, there was less movement at the beginning of SY2021 than in the current school year or in SY1920 before the pandemic.
This school year, our pre-K enrollment grew by nearly 34 percent. There are 3,766 students this year, compared to 2,816 the previous year. We experienced a sharp decline in our pre-K enrollment during the previous two school years due to the pandemic and the shift to distance learning. While we are not back to our historical numbers, we did see a significant increase (of nearly 34%).