Presented by Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday as a homegrown son of Chicago returning to lead the school system that produced him, San Antonio schools Supt. Pedro Martinez said it was his dream to be named the new chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, even as he enters the most high-pressure job of his career in a district facing difficult challenges.
Martinez will start his second stint at the system from which he graduated and in which he began his K-12 education career at a time when it faces pivotal pandemic hurdles, a large number of high-level leadership vacancies, a turbulent relationship with the teachers union and a forthcoming move from a mayoral-controlled district to an elected school board.
He will replace former CEO Janice Jackson, who once also called the position her “dream job” but left at the end of June after growing exhausted by the “ugly politics” and stressful responsibilities during a pandemic. Also stepping aside will be José Torres, an ex-Elgin schools chief who has been filling the role on an interim basis. Martinez and Torres overlapped at CPS’ central office in the 2000s.
The Sun-Times first reported late last month that Martinez, who becomes the first Latino to fill the CEO position at the nation’s third-largest school system on a full-time basis, was emerging as a front-runner out of a group of 25 applicants.
“I’m just honored [to get] the opportunity, as a son of Chicago, an immigrant kid, to come back home and to come to this dream job,” Martinez said at his introductory news conference in a courtyard outside his alma mater, Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen.
“I will make a commitment that I will be listening to my teachers, will be listening to our parents,” Martinez said. “I am so excited because I know the potential of our children. I know that when we partner with our parents and teachers and the amazing community organizations that are here in the city of Chicago, ... all of us united, we can achieve that. We can make Chicago the best district in the country.”
Martinez, 50, immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 6 years old and later graduated from Juarez. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s in business administration from DePaul University.
Martinez does not have an education degree or certificate and has never held a teaching job. His K-12 education positions have exclusively been in district management for the past 18 years.
Martinez worked at CPS from 2003 to 2009 under former CEO Arne Duncan, including serving as the district’s chief financial officer. He moved on to a deputy superintendent role in the Las Vegas district before taking the top job at another Nevada school system. Martinez has led the San Antonio district, which has less than 50,000 students, the past six years.
He will represent a departure from the most recent CPS administration under Jackson that featured longtime educators in key positions. His business background is akin to CPS leadership under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and the first few CEOs under Rahm Emanuel.
‘A national leader in education’: Lightfoot
Lightfoot, who during her campaign said she’d like to always see an educator leading CPS, said Martinez’s background isn’t a problem and in fact will make him well-suited to the role, calling him a “national leader in education.”
“He is a staunch advocate for children,” the mayor said. “I pledge to Pedro my full support. We need him to be successful. Because if he is successful, that means our students are successful.”
In San Antonio, some insiders viewed Martinez as a sort of manager-in-chief rather than an educator-in-chief. His lack of educational background often means he surrounds himself with experts in each department and lets them run their area, checking in to oversee their work.
Lightfoot noted that schools in San Antonio “made significant increases in student achievement year after year after year” under Martinez’s leadership despite that fact that a large number of its families live in poverty.
“You can’t do that without being a gifted leader [and] being somebody who is humble, who is working hand-in-glove with teachers and staff and also the board,” she said.
She also praised him for defying the Texas ban on requiring masks in schools.
“He is taking on the governor of Texas in, what I believe is an absolutely wrong-headed and dangerous practice of banning masks in schools to make sure that our kids are safe and throwing that to the side,” she said.
Two of Martinez’s primary tasks in Chicago when he starts the job Sept. 29 will be stabilizing a school year that for many has already proved turbulent, and filling key positions on his team after several senior leaders left at the same time as or soon after Jackson. Aside from CEO, the district either has current or soon-to-be vacancies — or interim hires — in the high-level positions of chief education officer, chief operations officer, chief procurement officer, human resources chief, government relations chief, the top two communications directors and press secretary.
He also will need to navigate an often toxic relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, which on Wednesday said the new CEO “has a tall task ahead of him from day one” and must “exceed expectations” to help the district move forward.
“Mr. Martinez returns to a different Chicago than the city he left in 2009, as we move toward an elected school board and embrace the return of full bargaining rights for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, clinicians, case managers and librarians,” union officials wrote in a statement.
“As is the case with previous new CPS CEOs, we hope Mr. Martinez respects and embraces the hard work and sacrifice that teachers, clinicians, paraprofessionals, counselors and librarians bring to their school communities every day. He should meet with educators, hear concerns, and make CPS families and school communities public and active participants in the governance of their district.”
Martinez: COVID, racism and poverty the enemy — not teachers
Mindful of the combative relationship over the years between CPS and CTU, particularly after the 2019 teachers strike, Martinez used his introductory press conference to extend an olive branch to the teachers union.
“This is the time for us to come together. We have to be united. We cannot be fighting within ourselves,” he said. “The enemy is COVID. The enemy is the systemic racism we’ve had in our country. The enemy is poverty. There are many enemies. We are on the same side.”
Told that the teachers association president in San Antonio, Alejandra Lopez, was “not a fan” of his performance there, Martinez blamed the pandemic and called Lopez “my critical friend.”
“Especially during COVID, things became very divisive — not only in San Antonio, but all over the country,” Martinez said. “There was a lot of fear. They took a position that our schools shouldn’t be open. I took a position that I’m gonna open them in a safe way. So, we gradually opened the schools.
“We were always the most conservative district in the entire region of our county because I knew the death rates were five times higher in my district than they were in the more affluent ZIP codes. But we still were able to keep the schools open, ending the year with almost 70% of our children in person in the elementary school.”
Martinez was equally unfazed by the prospect of a 21-member elected school board in Chicago, a structure that Lightfoot has branded “unwieldy” and fought tooth-and-nail, only to have the Illinois General Assembly approve it anyway.
“For the last decade, that’s all I’ve had is elected school boards, including in my former district San Antonio,” Martinez said. “Three different elections. Complete changeover of my board. I’ve had a 7-0 vote since I started. What I’ve learned is, it’s about alignment.
“The only concern I would have is, to have the support of the mayor, the support of the city ... to tackle these challenges of poverty. To tackle these challenges of just the historic segregation issues that we’ve had here in the city that I grew up with, you need everybody at the table.”
Martinez also has the support of the current Board of Education, which unanimously thought he was the best option to lead CPS, a source said.
And he was welcomed by 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, who recently stepped down as deputy governor for education. Both served on a temporary basis.
“It’s only fitting that the board select a Latino given that half of the population in CPS are Latino, and the majority of the kids that are coming into the school system continue to be Latino,” said caucus chairman Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th).
Villegas appreciated Martinez’s ties to the district.
“He’s from Chicago and he’s a product of CPS,” he said. “He’s done a tremendous job — from what I can tell — in San Antonio, and I’m looking forward in seeing him do as good of a job as possible here in the city of Chicago.”
Contributing: Elvia Malagon