This article has been updated.

The San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees unanimously voted Monday to name bilingual educator Jaime Aquino the sole finalist for superintendent, seven months after Pedro Martinez vacated the position.

Board Vice President Alicia Sebastian was absent Monday. The school board plans to officially vote to hire Aquino at a special called meeting on May 2, after waiting the required 21 days under state law.

“I’m delighted to be here,” Aquino told the boardroom. “I’m not here to lead. I’m here to serve the community.”

Aquino comes to the district with experience as an administrator in some of the largest school districts in the country, including Los Angeles, Denver and Hartford, Connecticut. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Aquino started his career as a bilingual teacher in Queens, New York.

The board recessed the meeting to conduct a press conference in front of the dais. Board President Christina Martinez said searching for a superintendent with more than 60 vacancies in Texas alone was one of the hardest things the board has ever had to do. The pandemic also exacerbated the search process, and more than 40 applications were received, she said.

“But I am proud of our board. I am proud of our community,” she said. “I am proud of our staff for really, really holding us to the fire about what they wanted to see in the next superintendent, and I’m grateful for all of the feedback. I’m grateful for the process that we went through.”

At the press conference, Aquino said his life prepared him for this moment to take the helm of SAISD.

“I have been very selective in terms of what community I want to serve, and I’m here because this is the right community for me,” he said. “This city feels like a family.”

Aquino said he couldn’t think of a district better suited for him because he sees himself in the students and feels inspired by them. He’s also inspired by the trustees, who are aligned with the same mission to make a difference in the lives of students.

Aquino’s 35-year education career has spanned both public and private endeavors. Most recently, he served as senior vice president of Discovery Education, a K-12 digital curriculum provider. From April 2020 to July 2021, Aquino worked with districts to support virtual instruction through Discovery Education during the early days of the pandemic. It is unclear what Aquino’s been doing since July.

In August 2018, New York State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia appointed Aquino as a distinguished educator to the Rochester City School District, where he worked until April 2020. Aquino conducted an intensive review of the district and developed a turnaround plan.

Aquino also served as deputy superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District from June 2011 to January 2014 and as chief academic officer for Denver Public Schools from October 2005 to October 2009. He worked as the instructional superintendent for the New York City Department of Education from 2000 to 2005.

In December, the board hired JG Consulting to conduct SAISD’s superintendent search at a time when school systems across the country are looking for new leaders. Currently, there are at least 66 superintendent vacancies in Texas.

Robert Jaklich, outgoing interim superintendent for the San Antonio Independent School District,  listens as the lone finalist for the superintendent position speaks during Monday's board meeting.
Outgoing interim superintendent for the San Antonio Independent School District, Robert Jaklich, smiles as the lone finalist for the superintendent position gives remarks during a board meeting Monday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Pedro Martinez, SAISD’s previous superintendent, resigned in September after six years to take the job as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. The board named Robert Jaklich, former Harlandale and Victoria ISD superintendent, interim superintendent later that month.

Supporters of Martinez credited him with turning around the district that serves about 46,000 students, 88% of whom are economically disadvantaged. During his tenure, SAISD’s state academic accountability rating improved from a C to a B, which prompted praise from state Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The ratings are largely based on state standardized test scores.

Martinez helped launch a series of in-district charters and create career-focused high schools with the Centers for Applied Science and Technology. He also started dual-language programs that continue to grow and established graduation and college-bound goals for students in an inner city district that saw fewer students receiving a higher education.

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel often clashed with Martinez, who never taught students but served districts as a finance and policy officer. The teachers union criticized Martinez for creating numerous partnerships with private entities, such as out-of-state charter schools, to operate SAISD campuses. The Alliance and other critics decried the partnerships as devastating to neighborhood schools.

With 67% of SAISD students learning below grade level, Aquino said his main priority as superintendent will be improving student achievement and the district’s graduation rate, which he said is about 85%. He said he would build upon the progress the district has already made under the leadership of Pedro Martinez and the board.

Acknowledging the added challenges the pandemic has brought public education, Aquino said this time is an inflection point for schools and presents an opportunity for educators to change education based on the lessons learned during the pandemic.

“This is the moment that we’re all called to step up. This is the moment more than ever that our community needs us. We’re living in very difficult times with the pandemic and what’s going on in the world around us,” he said.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.