San Antonio Independent School District‘s elected board trustees can see the finish line in their marathon search for a new superintendent with the academic vision and political skills to carry out the district’s ambitious mission statement: “To transform SAISD into a national model urban school district where every child graduates and is educated so that he or she is prepared to be a contributing member of the community.”
Standing at the finish line are two national educators, Pedro Martinez, the superintendent in residence for the Nevada Department of Education in Reno, and Scott Muri, the deputy superintendent of academics at Fulton County Schools in Atlanta (pictured above). Both are finalists for the job and both were in San Antonio on Thursday to meet separately with the media alongside Board President Ed Garza. Both will return separately later this month to meet with a broad array of community and business leaders while the seven trustees try to work toward a unanimous decision.
“The board is looking for a long-term leader to carry out transformational change, so we asked both of our finalists, if they are offered the job, can they see themselves staying here for eight to 10 years, and they both said yes,” Garza said in an interview.
Should either Martinez or Muri be able to accomplish the stated mission, the weak link in the transformation of San Antonio’s urban core – its public schools – could instead become why people come to live, work, and raise their families here. For the families already living in the district, where more than 90% of the population is Latino and living below the poverty line, quality public schools would do more to transform the lives of their children than anything else anyone can do for them.
This phase of SAISD’s search for a new superintendent began five months ago, but the search really started more than three years ago when then-Superintendent Dr. Robert Durón agreed with trustees to step down amid mutual mistrust and dissatisfaction. The subsequent search was marked by trustee bickering, shoddy background research of the candidates, and insufficient ambition for elevating the quality of the district’s schools. The search ended with the lone finalist withdrawing as details of his troubled professional past emerged. Dr. Sylvester Perez stepped out of retirement and into the vacuum as interim superintendent. He eventually won the job outright, holding it until his anticipated retirement at the end of the current school year.
The board’s past missteps seemed like lessons learned Thursday as the two finalists sat down separately with reporters, Martinez at a morning press conference, Muri in the afternoon. Just to reach this day they had proven themselves to be the two consensus finalists out of a pool of 40 candidates. Early on, there must not have been much agreement among trustees. As they reviewed the incoming applications, trustees decided to bring in 10 candidates for the first round of interviews, one-quarter of the field. It took nearly three days to meet with each candidate individually. That was two weeks ago. Four of the 10 were invited back for a second interview last week. Martinez and Muri were invited to return today, their third visit. Martinez will return again on April 27 for a full day, and Muri will return on April 29 for a full day, each scheduled to meet with a range of San Antonio civic and business leaders as Garza and trustees escort them around the city and consider their final decision.
“Obviously, we are very impressed with both candidates because their selection was unanimous,” Garza said. “It was definitely a strong pool. Before we announced the two finalists, I said to the full board that we could go with either one, but the fact that we did name two finalists is because we are confident in both of them and now it will be a matter of gauging some of the subtleties.
“We have scheduled a special meeting on May 4 to deliberate which direction to go,” Garza said. “We will deliberate in executive session and come out publicly with our selection. They both come in the week before, so the day that each one will be in town will be important.”
First impressions can be deceptive, but reporters rely on gut feelings and I came away impressed with both candidates, noting their many similarities, yet their very different life paths. Both men are in their mid-40s, and given the circumstances of having to appear in a new city, on-camera in what amounts to a community casting call, both spoke with confidence as they discussed their careers and aspirations should they be selected for the San Antonio leadership position. Both were articulate, relaxed, and engaging as they answered reporters’ questions, with Garza occasionally commenting while seated next to each finalist at the separate press conferences.
The school board, by all accounts, has learned from its earlier mistakes. All signs indicate the board has found two strong leaders, both with the ambition to demonstrate they can lead and transform a big city school district. Both conveyed their passion for students, public education, and giving inner city children the same chance to succeed that is taken for granted in wealthier, suburban districts.
Yet the two men are from very different worlds and the ultimate selection could come down to which one stands the best chance of succeeding not just as a superintendent, but as the superintendent of San Antonio’s largest inner city school district.
Martinez’s family could be the poster family for the American Dream story: Mexican immigrant family works hard, next generation gets educated and becomes productive community leaders. He was born in the Central Mexican city of Aguascalientes and was brought to Chicago when he was five years old, where his father worked a low wage factory job by day and played in Tejano bands in inner city clubs at night to feed his musical ambitions and supplement the family’s income. Nine more children were born after Pedro, and all now have either graduated from college or are in the process of completing their degrees.
Martinez seems younger than his age of 45, and his Spanish pronunciation of San Antonio and other words communicates not only bilingual skills, but also a familiarity with life in the barrio growing up. Even in a dress suit, one gets the impression that students would see him as one of them.
“The odds of me being here, in front of you, are probably one in a million,” Martinez said, talking about the distance he has traveled from Aguascalientes to the present interview and job opportunity.
Martinez became a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and went to work for major accounting firms before moving into the Chicago schools and working for Arne Duncan, then the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third largest district with 400,000 students and a $5 billion budget. Martinez rose to become the district’s chief financial officer, while Duncan went on to become the Secretary of Education in the Obama administration.
Martinez said he left Chicago for the first time to accept a position as deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District in Nevada.
Several years afterwards, Martinez got his own chance to become the school superintendent in Washoe County in Reno, Nevada, a district with 65,000 students compared to SAISD’s student population of slightly less than 54,000. There he improved graduation rates, Advanced Placement exam scores and the number of college-bound graduates. He said the district’s success led to more students graduating from college as engineers. He said he received two positive evaluations and contract extensions over two and a half years in the job, steadily improving the education outcomes of the district’s 40% Latino student body
“Reno got Tesla, guess why they got that?” he asked, not hesitating to rub it in just a bit.
Martinez presented a vigorous defense of a battle he had with Washoe trustees last year that first led to his dismissal on a charge that his resume falsely stated in his past work experience that he was a licensed CPA. That decision was quickly reversed under the threat of litigation by Martinez when trustees learned that, indeed, he had been a practicing CPA in Chicago, but now carried a different state license indicating he was no longer an active, practicing CPA. The rancor that arose during the very public dispute proved to be more than the two sides could reconcile. Shortly after reinstating Martinez to his position as superintendent the board paid Martinez in full for the remainder of his contract and issued what he said was a “written letter exonerating him,” yet falling short of making the public apology he had requested.
The dispute has become an item of discussion and third-hand gossip around the district, and I’ve personally heard in recent days several distorted versions of events. Board President Garza said the trustees had directed the district’s general counsel, attorney Pablo Escamilla, to conduct his own background search of Martinez and Muri rather than rely only on background checks by George McShan, the Harlingen-based search consultant. Garza said trustees were satisfied Martinez’s record as an educator and leader is strong and that he did nothing wrong while in Reno, regardless of misleading rumors now circulating.
“I’m an inner city kid, I’m a survivor,” Martinez said yesterday, recounting his battle with board trustees to restore his good name. “Sadly, this was a soap opera for me and the community for months.”
Turning his focus back to SAISD’s inner city students and the challenges they face, he said, “We are all they got. You do what we do, you do this because we’re trying to transform lives and the community … There is no reason why we don’t get to a 90% graduation rate.”
Martinez said he was not bothered by the proliferation of independent charter schools.
“The best way to deal with charters is to build good schools,” he said. “We need to be a district of choice.”
Just last month, Martinez was one of four finalists for the superintendent’s job with the Boston Public Schools.
SAISD’s abbreviated biography of Muri describes him as “a former teacher,” but Muri made it clear to reporters that after eight years in the classroom, more years as a school principal and 28 years working in public schools, “I am a teacher, and I will always be a teacher.” Joking that some of his students now are school principals and board trustees, he said his job these days is to be a teacher of children and adults.
Muri is the deputy superintendent of academics at Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, a district with 96,000 students that covers all of the county except for metro Atlanta where another district, Atlanta Public Schools, has been rocked by a cheating scandal that led to prison terms and fines this week for some of its top administrators. The district is not connected in any way with Muri’s district.
Muri was born in Knoxville, but grew up in Rhode Island, then moved back south to North Carolina, the son of a minister. He attended Wake Forest University, he said, careful to note that he was there with Tim Duncan and was a Spurs fan. When I later challenged that claim and asked if he really rooted for the league’s number one team, the Atlanta Hawks, Muri said he was at the Hawks-Spurs game rooting for the Spurs (who won) when he received a call from SAISD’s search consultant George McShan.
“I was sitting there watching the game, wearing my Tim Duncan jersey, when I learned I was selected as a finalist,” Muri said, laughing. “I keep that jersey in my office.”
Muri said he knew from an early age that as a minister’s son he was in the public eye and would be held to higher standards in the community.
“My parents? Two amazing people,” Muri said, when asked to share more of his personal story. “My dad was a minister. I grew up in a fish bowl. My values come from my parents. I am a man of faith. I believe that every living child can succeed … I believe I as an educator have a moral imperative to educate.”
Muri is a proponent of the New Classrooms organization and its “Teach to One” method of learning. According to the SAISD bio given the media, the program improved students’ math scores by 20% and secured his district a $1.25 million federal grant to expand this technology-driven approach to learning.
Like Martinez, he sees private charter schools as the inevitable outgrowth of underperforming inner-city public schools, and rather than disparage them or view them in an adversarial manner, he recognizes the right response is to give parents the same choices within the public schools.
“Every family needs to have a choice which school their child attends,” Muri said. “We have to create schools that people want to attend, that make people opt out of private schools to attend. We have to be the best option for parents who live in the district.”
If hired, Muri said, he will spend his first three months learning: “Lots of looking and listening,” he said.
I asked Muri if would remain in Fulton County a pursue the superintendent’s job there if current Fulton County Superintendent Robert Avossa leaves. Avossa is a finalist for the superintendent’s job in the Palm Beach County School District, where he interviewed Thursday. Muri said he was committed to the San Antonio opportunity.
Muri holds a graduate degree in public administration from Stetson University and an undergraduate degree in intermediate education and middle school education from Wake Forest University.
*Featured/top image: SAISD Superintendent Candidate Scott Muri speaks during an SAISD meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.