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Who is Pedro Martinez, CPS’ new CEO?

The new head of public schools in Chicago, a CPS graduate, has dozens of relatives who either attend or work in the district. But some critics from San Antonio say his record as superintendent there doesn’t match his working class background.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and San Antonio schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez approach the podium to announce Martinez as the new chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools during a news conference outside Benito Juarez High School on the Southwest Side of Chicago on Wednesday morning, Sept. 15, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and San Antonio schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez approach the podium to announce Martinez as the new chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools during a news conference outside Benito Juarez High School on the Southwest Side of Chicago on Wednesday morning, Sept. 15, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced new Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez on Wednesday as a “son of Chicago,” it was hard not to draw comparisons with his predecessor, Janice Jackson, praised by supporters and critics alike for her lifelong ties to CPS.

Jackson graduated from CPS, became a teacher, then a principal, and after her doctorate in education, she rose from mid-level administrator to CEO in a matter of years. She’s still a CPS mom of a daughter in junior high, and she still lives on the South Side.

Martinez immigrated to Chicago when he was 6 years old, and he and his 11 younger siblings all learned at CPS schools. He launched his career in public education at CPS in the 2000s, and likes to say he rose up through the system.

Currently three of his sisters teach in the district, and some 28 nieces and nephews attend CPS schools. Most of Martinez’s family still lives in Chicago; his mother Manuela is in the same historically Mexican Pilsen neighborhood where he graduated from Benito Juarez High School. A father of two school-aged kids, his wife, Berenice Alejo, also has Chicago ties and worked for The Resurrection Project in Pilsen and the Latino Policy Forum.

So as Martinez makes his homecoming, Martinez and Lightfoot want to impress on families and educators that he’s one of them, with skin in the game when it comes to the district’s success. Like Jackson, he views the CPS CEO post as a dream job.

Yet that’s where the similarities end. Martinez has taken a vastly different path to the corner office at 42 W. Madison St., revealing a different type of leader.

Homegrown — but took far different path than Janice Jackson

Martinez, CPS’ first Latino full-time CEO, enters the job with no education degrees and no time spent as a classroom teacher. After majoring in accounting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he worked as an auditor, including for Catholic Charities. His advanced degree is a master’s in business administration from DePaul University.

His strongest academic education credentials consist of a fellowship in the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University. And he graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy, funded by Los Angeles billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad, champions of corporate-style reforms aimed at improving education.

After his introductory news conference where a dozen reporters peppered Martinez with questions and a small group of parents heckled the mayor and other city leaders, one of his sisters — not among the CPS teachers in the family — said her brother is used to the pressure of running a large urban district and will meet the demands of the job.

“He’s very prepared,” Maria Martinez said. “I know he’s the right person. He can definitely handle it.

“He said, ‘I want to be near my family, and I know I can make a difference.’ So he really wanted it even though we questioned him just because he was already in a really good place.”

San Antonio schools Supt. Pedro Martinez walks with his mother-in-law, Amelia Cano (left), mother Manuela Martinez (center, in pink) and other family members to meet Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shortly after she announced that he would be the new chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools during a news conference outside Benito Juarez High School on the Southwest Side, Wednesday morning, Sept. 15, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Martinez’s training showed in his time leading the 48,000-student San Antonio Independent School District, where he was known for moving low-rated schools into the hands of charter operators and other private organizations to improve their performance — practices long lambasted by public education advocates.

He argued Wednesday that Texas laws gave him little choice but to use charters and privatization to manage schools that otherwise would have been forced to close. He said charter operators can have good ideas, yet he believes a district itself is best suited to support under-resourced schools.

Chicago, a 340,000-student district after years of enrollment decline, has gone through similar strategies over the past two decades. But there is now a moratorium on new charter schools and the district is phasing out its contract with a not-for-profit organization that used controversial “turnaround” strategies in privately managing dozens of schools.

Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the employee union at Martinez’s San Antonio district, said she didn’t feel Martinez heard or respected stakeholders’ voices when he made decisions on the fates of those schools, only abruptly announcing changes to educators.

“Pedro Martinez’s tenure here was characterized by a pro-charter agenda that is a hallmark of the Broad Academy that he attended, and very top-down decision-making,” she said Wednesday.

“It’s been a challenging six years for us under his leadership, and I think more than anything we’re looking to move forward with a superintendent that is really going to work collaboratively not just with us, the workers in the schools, but also with students and parents and community members.”

Martinez’s career at CPS began in 2003 as budget director under then-CEO Arne Duncan, who went on to become President Barack Obama’s U.S. Education Secretary. Martinez later named Duncan among his references on job applications. In 2008, Martinez was promoted to CPS’ chief financial officer, and the next year he was put in charge of supervising a network of schools on the West Side. But just two months later, he left CPS for Nevada for a series of central administrative jobs there.

He was deputy superintendent of Clark County School District in Las Vegas, then took the top job at Washoe County School District. He was removed from the Washoe job following a dispute with his school board, but was reinstated after his firing was found to be illegal. The school board, which wouldn’t release his contract or personnel file, later voted to buy out his contract so he continued to receive his $249,000 annual salary for a year after he left in November 2014.

Asked about the circumstances of his departure there, Lightfoot wrongly claimed it was a “mutual separation” and said that situation had no impact on Martinez’s candidacy.

“I had no qualms whatsoever,” the mayor said. “I think he’s proven himself as an incredible leader, a national leader. And the results that he went on to win working hand-in-hand with school boards, with parents, with students, teachers in San Antonio really speaks for itself.”

She also had no problems with Martinez’s business background despite campaigning on a belief that an educator should always lead CPS.

“I chose someone who I thought was an excellent leader and has a track record of success,” Lightfoot said. “I think his record speaks for itself.”

During his time in San Antonio, Martinez’s district moved from an “F” rating by state accountability metrics to a “B.” He also oversaw a massive rise in dual language programs, up from two to 61 in six years, and slight increases in graduation and college admission rates. That school system, about seven times smaller than CPS, consists of just more than 90 schools. About 90% of its students are Hispanic and almost 80% are economically disadvantaged.

Martinez said his lack of a teaching background “has not been a factor” in successfully leading school districts because he has put visions in place that attract top educators.

“But I will also say, I will always be humbled by all of our teachers, because I know how difficult their work is and they’re the reason I am here in front of you,” he said. “I always say, I will always be learning.”

Lopez said there were concerns about Martinez’s business background when he first arrived in San Antonio, and she felt those worries played out into reality over the past six years.

“It is a profoundly different experience to come to this position having never worked inside a school,” she said. “And I think what we see is he built relationships with the business community in this city when he should’ve been building relationships with the students and the families that our schools serve.”

Salary not released

Lightfoot wouldn’t say Wednesday how much she agreed to pay Martinez. A mayoral spokesman later didn’t respond to questions about Martinez’s salary. Clarity on his compensation package should come by next week, when the Board of Education is expected to approve his hiring.

The CPS CEO salary has skyrocketed 28% since December, from $260,000 a year for Jackson, whose credentials many officials called a prototype of a perfect fit for the job, to $335,000 for Dr. Jose Torres, a retired administrator who stepped in as interim over the summer.

In Martinez’s most recent contract that he signed in May for another five-year term in San Antonio, he agreed to $315,053 in base annual salary, plus 20% more to a “tax-sheltered annuity,” a review of that agreement shows. San Antonio’s school board agreed to another $8,400 per year for local travel and a cellphone.

A new addition to his contract that hadn’t appeared in four previous iterations was a cash-out clause for unused vacation and other paid time off at a daily rate of $1,369.

Despite his lucrative contract, former San Antonio board president Patti Radle said Martinez was a “fantastic” but humble superintendent who “knew and understood poverty and really wanted to do something about it.

“Knowing that his ticket out of poverty was education was wonderful, he never lost his perspective on that,” Radle said.

The district created a racial equity department during Martinez’s tenure and emphasized preparing students for life after high school.

“That comes out of a real, I mean, deep concern,” she said.

Lopez, the San Antonio union leader, said teachers and families there were glad to see a Latino leader from a working-class family take over the district. But in the end they were disappointed by his tenure, she said.

“Nothing about his policies showed that he really worked in the interests of our working-class communities of color,” Lopez said. “All of his policies and actions show that he’s actually working in the interests of the pro-privatization billionaire class.

“So I would say don’t be fooled by his personal narrative of growing up as a working-class person, because I think unfortunately that can serve as a bit of a distraction from what his record shows.”

Contributing: Madeline Kenney