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Elementary School Principal Named New San Diego Unified Superintendent

Cindy Marten, the newly-named superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, at a press conference announcing her appointment.
Kyla Calvert
Cindy Marten, the newly-named superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, at a press conference announcing her appointment.
New San Diego Unified Superintendent
Elementary School Principal Named New San Diego Unified Superintendent
GuestsCindy Marten, newly named SDUSD Superintendent Principal Central Elementary SchoolScott Barnett, SDUSD Trustee

ST. JOHN: Today is Thursday, February 28th, I'm Alison St. John. Today on Midday, San Diego Unified School District has a budget about as big as the City of San Diego's general fund, and 14,000 employees. It's a big deal when a new superintendent is appointed. Just about 24 hours after, we heard that Bill Kowba was retiring; the School Board named Cindy Marten who is currently principal of Central Elementary in City Heights to replace Kowba. There was no time for citizen involvement. I'd like to thank Cindy Marten for coming in and joining us. Thank you for being here. MARTEN: Thank you so much for having me. ST. JOHN: And we also have Scott Barnett, a School Board member. BARNETT: Good morning. ST. JOHN: I'm not sure if it's too early to congratulate you, if it's official yet, but you have been officially named as the new superintendent. How did you feel when you were offered this opportunity for the top job? MARTEN: I really felt quite honored to be considered. When I know the vision of the board of education, their vision 20/20 and a quality school in every neighborhood, and to be considered somebody that could lead a vision they believe in was an incredible honor. ST. JOHN: Did you have an inkling that this might happen? MARTEN: No, I didn't. ST. JOHN: Absolute surprise? MARTEN: It was quite a surprise. ST. JOHN: So you're still kind of adjusting. MARTEN: Yes, I am. But I'm ready to serve, and I'm honored to be asked to serve. It wasn't a career goal that I had, but it is absolutely aligned with what I believe in, and I believe in the work of this district. I've been a very public supporter of education, not just at my school, but in the community, and I'm on mission and ready to serve. ST. JOHN: So Scott, the School Board has always talked about valuing community involvement. How do you justify announcing a new superintendent without a public meeting for the community to weigh in? BARNETT: Well, when I ran for School Board, I said I wanted to make the district more efficient. So is this a very efficient process. You can't see the tongue in cheek on the radio. We have 14,000 employees in this district, two of them work directly from the School Board. The superintendent and the general council. I work, and my colleagues work, for all the voters and the parents in this district. We need to make sure, I need to make sure that I have someone who is accountable to me and my colleagues to fulfill the goals and visions of this board. And I need to hold them accountable, and the public needs to hold me accountable. So I believe and have always believed that these top positions, members need to make the choice that they think is best. And beyond that, with Ms. Marten, there's probably no educator in San Diego Unified that is better known already to the public than Cindy Marten. I've had dozens of parents, leaders from La Jolla to Scripps Ranch to Kearny to southeast San Diego who have already said great choice, she's going to make sure that children are considered first and foremost on every decision, and we support it. So I believe the public is supportive of it, but ultimately it's going to be results. Results that we believe Ms. Marten will be able to make, and we will be accountable for those results. ST. JOHN: So the decision was made on Tuesday night I understand by the board. And it was a surprise when Bill Kowba announced his retirement? BARNETT: At that moment, yes. It doesn't surprise me after all the hard work he's been through and exhausting years, 31 years of public service, that he said he was going to retire. That didn't surprise me. We didn't have any expectation it would happen that day. But I was not surprised he's ready to hopefully have a little more time for he and his family. He's worked six days a week for 31 years, and no one in this district works harder than Bill Kowba. ST. JOHN: Just before we move on to talk more about leadership and vision. I just want to ask one more question about this because we spoke with somebody from Clairemont McKenna College on state and local government about the fact that it is a violation of the Brown Act to go ahead and make a decision at a meeting which has not been correctly noticed. Is there some reason you would make this decision without giving the public a chance to weigh in at all? BARNETT: Well, the public is going to be weighing in when we actually have the formal contract, and they will be able to read the terms and conditions and salaries once we negotiate it with our legal council and her legal council. And all due respect to this professor, we have a general council who's been in this business for 30 years. And we believe we have familiared the law. And the point is we are going to have a formal public action when we approve the contract. And if those members of the public are opposed to it, they're certainly welcome to come down, e-mail me, call me which is they do all the time as well or support it, which I believe they'll mostly be supportive. ST. JOHN: Okay. So what is it about Cindy Marten that made this decision so easy for the board? BARNETT: Well, in my view, and I believe my colleagues are all strongly unanimous in this, that there is no better person to implement community-based school reform than the person who's done it in their district where almost all the kids are in poverty and over 85% are English learners. She's shown it can be done. No.2, who better to implement a process district-wide where student achievement is increased especially in the most vulnerable kids in our district than the person who's already done it? And for two years since I've been here, and I've seen the successes at Central, I said how do we replicate this? Can we clone Cindy Marten and make 200 of her at other sites? And the board said yes, we can make her the leader and say she knows how to do it. Give the vision, the model, the mentoring and direction to all the other principles and say I did it, no excuses, it can be done here. So we're confident that the most important issue for us is student achievement, we in this district overall have about half of our kids not proficient in math and English. Lincoln high school, 5% of the kids are proficient in math. That's scandalous. We should be flogged for that. And I know Cindy Marten will live, dream, breathe, sleep about kids and first making sure that accountability is there. ST. JOHN: Okay. So! You have a lot of public support, and that was a very powerful endorsement. MARTEN: Sure was. ST. JOHN: So tell us what is your secret sauce? What has worked at Central that you think could work in the whole district? MARTEN: You know, there's a singular focus on children. Every decision we make, every action I taking is one that is directed toward student achievement. So our focus on children and instruction in the classroom, building research-based practices to build the systems and structures that we know work for children. And so in public education there are many reasons why children are not achieving and many examples of children not achieving. But I have this belief system that if you can show how some children in poverty and some children who are English learners achieve and you can do that for some children, why can't do you that for all children? And it's not like in the medical field or some illnesses that there are no cures for. You just don't want know how to handle certain types of illnesses. We actually have the answers. They exist: And the degree to which a school or child is not achieving is a degree to which the leadership has not implemented what works. And my philosophy is paying attention to what works and growing in what works and basing it in research. ST. JOHN: One of the things I believe helped it work in Central was your fight to keep classroom sizes small, which involves money. And the city school district is passing a budget that is very tight and looks at increasing class size next year. MARTEN: Right. ST. JOHN: How can you reconcile what you've been doing and what you may have to do? MARTEN: There's no singular answer. There's no silver bullet to turning around a school or helping children achieve. A strategy that we've used has been small class size, and that did cost money. But my job is to lead with or without appropriate funding. My job is to lead my school when we have lots of money and when we have almost no money. And if there is no money, I still as a leader have to figure out how to provide children with excellence. And learning how to teach in a lower class size setting over the last few years when we fought for that and won the opportunity to have small classes, our teachers have learned in that environment. If our class sizes need to go up because of budgetary reasons, that doesn't mean achievement is going to go down. The fight wasn't only about small class size. The major driver behind that was to stabilize the staff at my school. We had been together for ten years. And it was important to me to attract and retain high-quality teachers in an inner city school and have them stay. And they still when they feel effective. And we invested five years of very strong professional development in our team and then the bottom started falling oust the budget. And I wasn't willing to lose a team of people that we had invested in over the years. So it was keep the team together and not having the layoffs and keeping a stabilized core staff. ST. JOHN: So where do you stand on the issue of teacher salaries? When you're looking at a budget sometimes it is teacher salaries versus class size. MARTEN: I'm going to always say the same thing, our decisions have to be made in the best interests of student achievement. And your going to weigh priorities and make decisions that will directly and most appropriately impact student achievement. And when you have to make hard decisions, where is that conversation going to go? It's going to make the best decision for children. ST. JOHN: And where would you say that would fall? MARTEN: That's an either/or paradigm. This setting today, I'm not going to answer that right now. ST. JOHN: It's a tricky one! MARTEN: There's a larger context to that question. And it needs to be put into the larger context of the current situation. And equity in terms of which schools are we talking about, what is the achievement rate, what is the history? At one given time, you could say something is more important than something else, and two years later the other is more appropriate ST. JOHN: So is might vary by school. MARTEN: Absolutely. And my time, budget time and what's happening. ST. JOHN: Anthony Alvarado was hired to do this educational leadership while he did the management side. Which do you feel more drawn to? MARTEN: My strength is in curriculum. I have a Masters in Curriculum Instruction from here at UCSD, and Literacy and Instruction. And that's what I'm drawn to. ST. JOHN: Okay. So Scott, what would you say is the biggest challenge that you think the new superintendent is going to be facing in the board's perspective in the coming year? BARNETT: My view is in this district, we do not have a culture district-wide of accountability. And that is something that Cindy Marten stands up and says, yes, we have poverty issue, crime issues, environmental, but I as principal am accountable to still focus on student achievement. And that is it a culture that has to be district-wide. She is going to focus and make sure children succeed when we have an extra billion dollars or are short billions of dollars. So we have to change the culture in this district on the academic side and on the management side of the district, and Cindy will lead by example. Part of her strength of character is a spine of steel. If anyone does anything that's going to weaken the children's academic performance, you're going to see the mother bear of 100,000 kids come out, and not just the kind, sweet principle we have today. She has the intellectual capacity and the strength of character, I'm convinced, to lead this district and focus on the things that we all as parents and kids in the district care most about: Our kids learning successfully. ST. JOHN: So Cindy, you're smiling as the mother bear here. What do you think so needs to change in the culture? How would you move the culture when you get this job? MARTEN: Consistent focus on children, and make sure every single decision is based on what's happening for children in the classroom. From a curriculum standpoint, do we have the right systems and structures in place that allow all decisions to be put into the context of is this working for children? ST. JOHN: Now, the district still faces deficits. Other than lobbying Sacramento for more money, what can you do to fix this deficit? MARTEN: I know our School Board is working very hard on that with lots of ideas how to fix the structural deficits. And I've watched for carefully some of the debate and dialogue that's been happening over the last few years. And I have a great deal of respect for the current leadership. Bill Kowba and the deputies and the School Board that have navigated a very difficult time. And I've heard the conversations around structural deficit, reform, and some of the ideas out there are very intriguing to me. ST. JOHN: As a proponent of community-based reform, does this lightning speed selection trouble you? MARTEN: That community wasn't at the table? ST. JOHN: Right. MARTEN: I have been very public in my advocacy, and I feel that I know the community and the community knows who I am because I've been out there, and I've been in lots of different forums mostly because I was advocating for Central, and I feel that the community is at the table and will continue to be at the table. And my staff and my community in Central and in city height, they always say I work for the community, I don't work for the district or for the superintendent or for the School Board. I work for the community. And the School Board can set direction. But the community is who I'm accountable to. ST. JOHN: Scott, when will the community have a chance to express -- sounds like a lot of positive, but we don't know until the meeting happens, when might that happen? BARNETT: Hopefully in the next few weeks. And also I'm convinced over the months ahead that Ms. Marten will get out to the different communities, get to meet people who she hasn't met already, and have a chance to answer questions about her philosophy. That's not before we take action. We have committed we're going to hire her. We just have to do the paperwork at this point. But the community is always involved. Every single day I get dozens of e-mail, and I try to respond to every one I can. And the superintendent probably gets hundreds of e-mail, and we get phone calls. And lots of issues every day. They're always going to be engaged. And the thing that I think Ms. Marten is going to do is going to empower the community where in some cases, some of our area superintendents and some of the people are more focused on their own issues, their own governance issues instead of what does the public want. The schools that reform the best are the ones where the parents have gotten involved, taken charge and say things aren't working, we want to fix it. And that's happened at Central where Cindy's helped galvanize those people. And I've seen it at schools throughout the district. ST. JOHN: But there has to be a meeting, a correct notice so the public can come and say what they feel. BARNETT: Well, we have to negotiate with our legal council and have a contract and the terms, and then we will -- Mr. Kowba is not retiring until June 30. So we hope to have a contract resolved and signed within the next few weeks. Then it will be on the public agenda. And they can come down and see any benefits she has, salary, term of contract, and can also say to us, don't hire this person or hire this person. ST. JOHN: In the past, there have been months sometimes of public meetings say who would you like and what are the alternatives. Will there be an opportunity for the public to at least hear why you're making this choice before you make it? BARNETT: I'm telling you why. We will say before we vote. But yes, we have had a lot of processes and a lot of failed superintendents in this district. The achievement gap between the poor kids of color in this district and the wealthier kids has not improved over all the superintendents we have had. Except an inch. So with all that process, the point is I as a School Board am accountable to the public, and Cindy is going to make sure it's done. ST. JOHN: I hear what you're saying, but is there a vote like he within the next week or are you talking about months? BARNETT: It depends on how the negotiations G. She could be a real tough negotiator with our lawyer! But I'd say within a week or couple of weeks. ST. JOHN: Okay. Just so the public knows. BARNETT: Tell be sooner rather than later. But when you get lawyers involved in anything, it always takes longer. MARTEN: And in terms of the community process too, I have planned over the next months to go to as many community groups and forums so people do get to know me and know who I am. And I want to get to know the community members who I don't know yet. ST. JOHN: That's very good to hear. Thank you for that.

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

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.

Corrected: June 20, 2024 at 2:49 AM PDT
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh and Peggy Pico contributed to this segment