San Antonio schools Supt. Pedro Martinez named new Chicago Public Schools CEO

San Antonio schools Supt. Pedro Martinez named new Chicago Public Schools CEO

Pedro Martinez talks outside Benito Juarez High School on Wednesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The announcement was made at Benito Juarez High School, Martinez’s alma mater.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday introduced San Antonio schools Supt. Pedro Martinez as the new chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools.

Martinez returns to the school system from which he graduated and in which he started his K-12 education career at a time when it faces pivotal pandemic challenges, 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 left at the end of June, and 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.

Pedro Martinez Courtesy San Antonio Independent School District
Pedro Martinez

“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. He echoed Jackson, who also called the position her dream job when she was promoted in 2018.

“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 and 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 the past six years.

He will represent a departure from the most recent CPS administration under Jackson that featured longtime educators in key positions. He has a business background akin to CPS leadership under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and the first few CEOs under Rahm Emanuel.

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 view 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.

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. The district either has current or soon-to-be vacancies — or interim hires — in the high-level positions of chief executive officer, 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 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.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Latino Caucus, said late Tuesday that it was fitting that Martinez was named to head CPS.

“As I’ve been stating, there needs to be parity in these appointments,” Villegas said. “I’m glad the board has selected Pedro Martinez, but there’s a long way to go. This should be a continuation of additional appointments for Latinos.”

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