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Elementary School Principal Named New San Diego Unified Superintendent

Cindy Marten, the newly-named SDUSD superintendent and Scott Barnett, a SDUSD trustee, talk to KPBS about the choice of Marten to lead the district.


Cindy Marten, newly named SDUSD Superintendent Principal Central Elementary School

Scott Barnett, SDUSD Trustee


The principal of Central Elementary School will succeed San Diego Unified Superintendent Bill Kowba, the San Diego Unified School District announced Wednesday.

Photo by Kyla Calvert

Cindy Marten, the newly-named superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, at a press conference announcing her appointment.

— Cindy Marten, principal of Central Elementary School in City Heights, will succeed San Diego Unified Superintendent Bill Kowba, the San Diego Unified School District announced Wednesday.

While most large city school districts spend months searching for new superintendents, Marten's appointment was announced only the day after Kowba said he would retire.

The school board announced their choice of Marten at a press conference Wednesday evening. Board President John Lee Evans said trustees decision to tap Marten was reached through a unanimous vote. He said the choice of Marten was unconventional, but that the board is confident that she is the right person to carry out their Vision 2020 Plan. That plan aims to improve the quality of neighborhood schools through community engagement.

“It is time for us to bring in an educator who has demonstrated that schools, even in the highest poverty neighborhoods, can be turned around for success and we want this to happen across the district," Evans said. "So this is why we have chosen Cindy Marten as the next superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District."

Marten has been at Central Elementary for 10 years. Nearly all of the school's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 85 percent are learning English as a second language.

The trustees praised Marten's districtwide leadership, pointing to her efforts to prevent teacher layoffs last year by lobbying in Sacramento and being a vocal proponent of negotiations between the district and the teacher's union.

Marten said those efforts reflect the community-based reform movement she has been leading in City Heights.

“The schools belong to the community and I say at my school that I work for the children, I work for the community and I want to show examples of how that works," she said. "So, to hear the board had unanimously selected me to serve this grand mission is an incredible honor. And I sort of don’t believe it.”

But the community was not involved in the short process of selecting Marten. Bill Freeman, president of the district's teachers union, said Thursday that he couldn't speak to whether Marten would make a good superintendent. He said time will tell how she leads the district. He applauded the board for not allowing a gap in district leadership, but said his "concern would be with not allowing stakeholders to have a voice in the process."

Lisa Berlanga, executive director of UpforEd, a group that promotes parent engagement in city schools, said the announcement of Marten's selection was shocking. Berlanga said she is concerned about the lack of community input.

"But on the other hand, Cindy Marten is an outstanding person," Berlanga said. "And we know that she shares our core values, which are children-first decision making and parents and meaningful and powerful stakeholders."

Choosing new superintendents from within current district ranks is becoming more common across the country, according to Jay Goldman, editor of School Administrator magazine.

"It makes sense for consistency," Goldman said. "When an outsider comes in with his or her own ideas it can be very disruptive."

He said quickly rotating administrations, each with their own reform agenda, can create cynicism among school staff. Also, choosing a candidate from within the school district is less expensive, with nationwide superintendent searches costing large, urban school districts $25,000 to $30,00 on average, according to Goldman. But, he said, choosing a principal without central office experience to run such a large district is still unusual.

In San Diego board members' rush to appoint Marten, they may have also violated the Brown Act, California's open meeting law. According to Doug Johnson, a research fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, governing bodies are allowed to discuss personnel matters in closed meetings, but those meetings have to be publicized and the public has to be given the opportunity to comment on the agenda items that will be discussed. There was no meeting on the school board's agenda between Kowba's announcement Tuesday night and board's announcement Wednesday.

Johnson said Wednesday's announcement raise the question,"are they discussing official board business outside of agendized meetings? Which is a big Brown Act no-no."

On KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday, Scott Barnett, one of the school trustees, said the board works closely with its general counsel and is confident they did not violate any open meetings laws.

Evans said school trustees first approached Marten about the superintendent job Tuesday night. Her nomination will have to be formally ratified a meeting of the board. Evans said the public will have the opportunity to comment and provide input on Marten's appointment then.

KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh and Peggy Pico contributed to this segment


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