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As search for new CPS CEO progresses, 2 names emerge

The interim CPS CEO and the San Antonio school district’s superintendent are rising to the top of the candidates as Chicago searches for a new schools chief.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot visits a classroom at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School on the North Side, Monday afternoon, April 19, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot visits a classroom at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School on the North Side on April 19. Lightfoot is weighing her choices for the next CPS CEO.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The search for the next leader of Chicago Public Schools has zeroed in on four finalists from a pool of 25 applicants, and the mayor is reviewing her options, according to city officials.

Behind the scenes, one candidate appears to be emerging from that pack while the interim CEO, José Torres, also remains in the running for the permanent gig, three sources with knowledge of the process told the Chicago Sun-Times on the condition they remain unnamed to share sensitive details.

The latest public update on the hiring process, which came from CPS in a report published late Friday, arrives three weeks after officials had initially planned to name the successor to former schools chief Janice Jackson, with no explanation for the delay.

“We are taking this decision carefully, and at this time the search for a new CEO for CPS is still underway,” mayoral spokesman César Rodriguez wrote in an emailed statement. He said the city does not have an updated timeline for announcing a new CEO.

Chicago Public Schools Interim Chief Executive Officer José Torres listens during the Chicago Board of Education’s first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop, Wednesday morning, July 28, 2021.
Chicago Public Schools Interim Chief Executive Officer José Torres listens during the Chicago Board of Education’s first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop on July 28.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

From City Hall to CPS, some insiders feel Torres might represent the best option for the full-time job — if he can be persuaded to stay. Torres, a former Elgin schools superintendent, had just retired as president of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora and was in the middle of relocating out of state when he was asked to fill the interim role. He was given a 12% raise over former CEO Jackson to take the position.

If an offer is made to Torres and he declines, San Antonio school superintendent Pedro Martinez appears to have separated himself from the group of applicants as a top contender to become the new CEO, three sources said. Of the four finalists identified through the search process, Martinez is the only one to be interviewed by the Board of Education thus far, sources said. Martinez could not be reached for comment Sunday.

While Torres and Martinez appear to be frontrunners at this point, sources said Mayor Lori Lightfoot hasn’t made up her mind and might go a different route. The names of the other three finalists could not be determined.

The new superintendent will take over at a crucial time for the district as it looks to manage a devastating pandemic that has affected the education and mental health of thousands of students, teachers and staff, some of whom have died or lost family members. That’s not to mention the reengagement of families who lost connection with the district over the past year and a half, or the Delta variant that has reignited the spread of the virus. The CPS CEO will also oversee ongoing negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union over health and safety concerns.

With the first day of school a week away, it’s unclear if officials would rather wait to announce a CEO. Had the process gone according to plan, that consideration wouldn’t have to be made.

In a May news conference announcing Jackson’s resignation, Lightfoot told reporters she had no doubts the city would find a top notch replacement by the end of July, though acknowledging the “aggressive timeline.”

“In our nationwide search, we will be drawing upon a deep wealth of talented, proven leaders,” the mayor said. “And I am confident that we will find the next great leader for CPS.”

But as the search progressed, officials had a hard time attracting qualified educators, three sources said.

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez
Courtesy San Antonio Independent School District

Many of the same reasons that turned the CEO’s office from Jackson’s dream job to one she ran from in the end — recent toxic negotiations and an ongoing hostile relationship with the teachers union, a mayor with a difficult personality, the pandemic, the politics surrounding the move to an elected school board — made it difficult to persuade top-tier outsiders to apply, sources said.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said it was “not accurate” that the district was having a hard time attracting top candidates.

Though Lightfoot promised significant transparency for the search from start to finish, details released Friday marked the first update in nearly two months — and do not appear to paint the full picture. The mayor had vowed to publish bi-weekly reports on the progress of the search. The last one had been posted online June 23.

The report written by search firm BWP & Associates and published Friday showed six superintendents had applied for the position along with four deputy superintendents, four mid-tier administrators, six principals, three consultants and two other managers. Those candidates included eight current CPS employees.

Nine applicants were from Illinois, three from Virginia, two from California and two from New York. Others were from Texas, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Canada and Morocco.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the resignation of CPS CEO Janice Jackson and the future of CPS during a press conference at City Hall in the Loop, Monday, May 3, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the resignation of CPS CEO Janice Jackson and the future of CPS during a news conference on May 3 at City Hall.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Fourteen candidates spoke only English while three spoke fluent Spanish, and four were conversational in Spanish.

Either Torres or Martinez — both long-time educators with history at CPS — would appease the demands of the City Council Latino Caucus, which signed a letter in June urging Lightfoot to hire a Latino for the position.

The share of Latino students at CPS has grown from just over one-third in 2000 to nearly half the district today, making up the largest demographic group in the school system. But over those two decades, there have only been two Latino CPS CEOs — Torres and Jesse Ruiz, now the deputy governor for education. Both served on an interim basis.

Martinez, a University of Illinois graduate with a master’s in business administration from DePaul, worked at CPS from 2003 to 2009, including the role of chief financial officer under ex-CEO Arne Duncan, who went on to become the U.S. Secretary of Education. Martinez then spent time as a deputy superintendent at the 64,000 student Washoe County School District in Nevada before taking the same role at Clark County School District in Las Vegas, home of 320,000 students. He returned to Washoe County in 2012 for the superintendent job and stayed for two and a half years.

The past six years he has served as the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, which enrolls 47,000 students in more than 90 schools. CPS, the nation’s third-largest school system, is more than seven times bigger than San Antonio’s district.

Martinez was most recently in the news as the target of a lawsuit by the Texas Attorney General over the San Antonio district’s vaccine mandate for employees and mask requirement.