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Mayor Lori Lightfoot Taps San Antonio Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez As New CPS Chief Executive

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Mayor Lori Lightfoot has chosen San Antonio schools superintendent Pedro Martinez as the next Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer, appointing the first Latino to run the city's school district.

Martinez, an immigrant from Mexico who grew up in Pilsen, and graduate of Benito Juarez High School, said he was excited to return back home to his "dream job." He plans to start his position at CEO during the last week of September.

Martinez served as chief financial officer for CPS from 2003 to 2009 under former CEO Arne Duncan. He's run the San Antonio school district for the past six years, and previously served as both superintendent and deputy superintendent at various school districts in Nevada. He's now the first Latino to serve as permanent CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

The Chicago Teachers Union said, given the pandemic, a shortage of school bus drivers, and "poor communication" from the district's central office, "it is clear that Mr. Martinez has a tall task ahead of him from day one."

The union also noted Martinez lacks any experience as a teacher, and said "Mr. Martinez will have to be an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust and meet high expectations."

Lightfoot defended her selection of Martinez, despite his lack of teaching experience.

"I chose someone who I thought was an excellent leader, and has a track record of success," she said.

Lightfoot said, during his time in San Antonio, Martinez helped increase the district's grade from an F to a B, achieve a 100% increase in the number of students admitted to four-year universities, and make the highest achievement gains of any district in 2019. The San Antonio district also was named the fastest improving large district in Texas in 2018.

"You can't do that without being a gifted leader," the mayor said.

She also praised Martinez for defying Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's "foolish ban on masks in public schools" by requiring all of that district's students and staff to wear masks in schools this year, and requiring all staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.

"As he's demonstrated recently, he is a staunch advocate for children," Lightfoot said.

Martinez pledged to place a priority on safety at the city's schools, with students back in classrooms full-time amid the pandemic, and still waiting for vaccines to be approved for children under age 12.

"I will be making sure that I listen to my teachers, that we listen to our parents," Martinez said. "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  -- there's just a wealth of them, as well as leadership across our city – I know what's possible for our children. I know that our children can reach their full potential."

It's unclear what Martinez's salary will be. Lightfoot said she has not finalized a contract agreement with Martinez yet, but the two have agreed on "broad strokes of the terms."

"We'll let you know as soon as we finalize the deal," Lightfoot said.

Martinez takes over at CPS as the district prepares to transition to a fully elected school board over the next six years. In July, Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation that will create a 21-member school board in 2025, starting with a hybrid board, including 10 members elected in November 2024, and 11 members appointed by the mayor, including the board's president. The board will then become fully elected in 2027, with voters electing 11 members, including the president in November 2026.

Martinez said he's only ever served as superintendent under elected school boards in the past in San Antonio and Nevada, so he's confident he'll be able to work with the new elected school board in Chicago once it's in place.

"The only concern I would have is to have the support of the mayor, and the support of the city to tackle these challenges of poverty, to tackle these challenges of, you know, just the historic segregation issues that we've had here in the city that I grew up with," he said. "We need everybody at the table, and to have the power of the mayor's office. There's nothing like that."

Following an apparently rocky relationship with the teachers' union in San Antonio, Martinez said he still considers the union leader there "my critical friend."

"But we also respected each other. We didn't always agree," he said.

Martinez said "things became very divisive" during the pandemic, saying the union wanted to stick with remote learning all of last school year, but he wanted to gradually open them.

"We were always the most conservative district in the entire region of our county, because I knew that 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 last year, ending the year with almost 70% of our children in-person at the elementary schools, with trust from both staff and parents," he said.

Martinez pledged to collaborate with the Chicago Teachers Union, but stressed that he stands by the decision to start the school year fully in-person.

"In-person instruction is what the majority of our children, especially children of poverty, that's what they need. That's where they learn the best," he said.

Martinez takes over for former CEO Janice Jackson, who left at the end of June, when her contract expired. Former Elgin-based District U-46 superintendent Jose Torres has served as interim CPS chief since then.

Jackson herself was a CPS graduate, as well as a former CPS teacher, principal, administrator, and chief education officer.

"Dr. Janice Jackson raised the bar on excellence for CEOs. When our school district is led by someone who embodies excellence, and also has lived experience similar to the students that they serve every day, it not only helps ensure that the students' unique needs are met, but it showcases to them, their parents and guardians, and our entire CPS community that they, too, can get into leadership positions and thrive," Lightfoot said.

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