The special meeting of the school board on Monday might have seemed a mere formality to some as the seven trustees voted unanimously to select Pedro Martinez as the next superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District and then adjourned. The meeting was lightly attended and Martinez, the sole finalist for the job and current superintendent-in-residence for the Nevada Department of Education, was not present.
A contract remains to be negotiated and signed, but Board President Ed Garza believes that, too, will be a formality.
“I feel confident we will have it all resolved by one week from tonight, by May 11,” Garza said after the board emerged from an hour-long executive session to take the vote.
He said there was unanimity on the board and the one hour behind closed doors was spent over supper discussing contact negotiations with Pablo Escamilla, the district’s legal counsel.
Yet tonight’s vote could prove to be a historic one for a school board with great challenges, and great ambitions to become a national model inner city district. The current board, including Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez, who will retire in June, crafted the district’s new mission statement in 2012. It states: “To transform SAISD into a national model urban school district where every child graduates and is educated so that he or she is prepared to be a contributing member of the community.”
The board and Martinez himself believe he is the education leader who can deliver on such lofty aspirations. He emerged first as one of two finalists after trustees brought in 10 different applicants for interviews. Then the other finalist, Scott Muri, the deputy superintendent of academics at Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, removed himself as a contender, citing another unnamed opportunity he was pursuing.
“Dr. Muri called me the day after he made his announcement and told me he was about to be named the sole finalist for another superintendent job that would soon become public,” Garza said Monday. “He had nothing but good things to say about our process and how he was treated. He thought everything was handled very professionally.”
The process this time did unfold almost flawlessly after recriminations about selection of a search firm to assist the board. Harlingen-based consultant George McShan and former SAISD Superintendent Dr. Rubén Oliváres, however, assembled a large pool of candidates, including Martinez.
A once-divided board now seems united, at least externally, on its selection of Martinez. Two of the trustees, James Howard in District 2 and Olga Hernandez in District 6, face challengers in the May 9 City Election, but the board succeeded in meeting its goal of identifying and selecting a new superintendent before the election.
In his recent appearances here before the public, school district employees and the media, Martinez has communicated passion, energy, youth and vision. His own story as a child immigrant whose family left Aguascalientes in central Mexico for a new life in Chicago gives the bilingual Martinez instant credibility as someone with a nuanced appreciation for the district’s nearly 54,000 students.
Martinez, 45, is the oldest of 10 children, all of whom have graduated from college or are about to graduate. His father worked a low wage factory job by day and played in a Tejano band in inner city clubs at night to support his family while his mother stayed at home to raise the children. Education was a given.
Martinez became a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and went to work for major accounting firms before moving into the Chicago schools and working for Arne Duncan, then the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third largest district with 400,000 students and a $5 billion budget. Martinez rose to become the district’s chief financial officer, while Duncan went on to become the Secretary of Education in the Obama administration.
Martinez said he left Chicago for the first time to accept a position as deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District in Nevada.
Several years afterwards, Martinez earned his own chance to become the school superintendent in Washoe County in Reno, Nevada, a district with 65,000 students compared to SAISD’s student population of slightly less than 54,000. There he improved graduation rates, Advanced Placement exam scores and the number of college-bound graduates. He said the district’s success led to more students graduating from college as engineers. He said he received two positive evaluations and contract extensions over two and a half years in the job, steadily improving the education outcomes of the district’s 40% Latino student body
On more than one occasion during his visits, Martinez cited Tesla’s selection of Reno over San Antonio for its new battery factory because of the availability of skilled workers.
“I am honored to have been selected for this position and look forward to bringing my experience with other urban districts in Chicago and Nevada to SAISD,” Martinez said in a statement Monday evening. “The District has accomplished a great deal over the past several years with improved graduation rates and extensive work to update and improve school facilities, but there is much more to do for SAISD to realize its full potential. I have no doubt that working with our Trustees and staff, in partnership with our community, we can make San Antonio ISD a National Model Urban School District.”
For a city intent on becoming a more nationally competitive destination and home for talented young professionals, the quality of San Antonio’s inner city schools is a major issue. There are many positive trends within the district, but there are still too many students dropping out and too few who graduate college-ready and go on to complete four-year degree programs or other advanced technical certifications.
For the tens of thousands of families with school-age children already living in the district, the vast majority of them Mexican-American and living below the poverty line, there is a stark difference between inner city schools and the funding and opportunities that await mostly non-Hispanic student populations in the suburban districts.
Those challenges seemed distant Monday evening as trustees returned to take the official vote.
“I am thrilled to move to hire Pedro Martinez as superintendent,” a smiling Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) said as other trustees interrupted him to second the motion. Garza congratulated the board on its work, and afterwards said, “The entire board entered into this process in good faith to find the right individual to lead us forward to fulfill our district’s mission.”
The school year will end with graduation ceremonies in early June, which also should mark the passing of the baton from Dr. Perez to newly hired Superintendent Martinez.
*Featured/top image: Pedro Martinez answers reporters’ questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.