Chicago Public Schools’ new top boss says district’s COVID-19 response ‘falls squarely’ on him

Pedro Martinez, speaking at a news conference in San Antonio, is the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Courtesy of the San Antonio Independent School District / WBEZ
Pedro Martinez, speaking at a news conference in San Antonio, is the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Courtesy of the San Antonio Independent School District / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools’ new top boss says district’s COVID-19 response ‘falls squarely’ on him

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After a little more than a week on the job, Chicago Public Schools’ new CEO is weighing in on the school district’s slow rollout of COVID-19 safety measures, negotiating with the teachers union and the school system’s plunging enrollment numbers.

“The responsibility of what happens in our district falls squarely first on me and my role,” CEO Pedro Martinez told WBEZ when asked about the district’s delayed rollout of COVID-19 safety measures before his arrival on Sept. 29. “That’s where it falls, nowhere else.”

Martinez, a CPS grad and former top official, sat down with WBEZ’s Sarah Karp in his downtown office on Thursday to discuss that issue and others. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

One of the biggest issues facing the school district right now is continued enrollment declines. It’s down nearly 80,000 over the last decade. You have said tough decisions need to be made. Can you talk about what those tough decisions might be?

We’re going to be releasing our official 20th [day] enrollment very soon. One of the questions that I have as we look at what’s happening across multiple years of enrollment declines, when I look at schools that are continuing to get smaller, my concern is: Do we have adequate programming for those students?

I want to bring the community to the table, specifically the parents of those children that are there, just to make sure that we have conversations about what is available to their children. And, really for us as a district, making sure that we’re set up to really serve those children.

I’ve been to some of our largest schools. I was at Kenwood, Simeon, and Prosser — nothing short of impressive and amazing programming there. I worry, though, for children that are going to schools where the enrollment declines are so significant, whether they get access to that same program.

What if the answer is “no” — there’s not adequate programming there? As many people will point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a small school. The real problem is that we fund schools based on enrollment, and so fewer students means less money, and that leads to less staff and programs. Might we see a change in how schools are funded?

I am not a fan of closing schools. That’s something that I have tried to avoid in the past as much as I could. And even in my former district I actually reopened closed schools because I just felt it was important to have that programming for the community. What’s complicated here in Chicago is not only have we had enrollment declines, but it’s been year over year over year.

I am a fan of small schools, and I think there are innovative school models that can be created. The challenge that I see, though, is the combination of the enrollment declines without having a long-term sustainable plan for the facilities. And so when you have the combination of small schools, inadequate facilities, inadequate programming, that’s what creates a lot of concerns for me, specifically for those children.

I’ve been gone for 12 years. I would have never imagined 12 years ago that we’d be at this level of enrollment.

And so I want to understand it. My goal first is to bring the key stakeholders to the table and for me, number one — and then there’s nobody [who is a] close second — is the parents and the students that are being affected … And then we can gather together to make some key decisions.

And frankly, decisions can vary from different school models. I would want a commitment from the state that they’re being funded properly because it’s not fair to go to a Kenwood, to go to a Simeon, and say ‘hey we’re going to fund you less, because we’re going to fund this awesome new school model that’s very small.’ That’s not fair to them either.

I know that you’ve said that you don’t want to second guess your predecessors in terms of contact tracing and testing, which by even the mayor’s own account has been disappointing this fall. Do you think that the mayor and her office should have done more to make sure that schools were ready for classes to begin?

The responsibility of what happens in our district falls squarely first on me and my role, and then of course my board and my staff. That’s where it falls, nowhere else.

We should not be pointing fingers anywhere else. We run the day-to-day operations. With that, what I’m excited about is that all the data is very clear. The schools are safe. The data is very, very clear. The schools are safe. Cases are at extreme low levels.

Where I’m going next is partnering very closely with our department of health, with our health professional staff here in the district, to have a very organized, and coordinated initiative around [getting students access to the vaccine]. That’s what’s exciting. We can keep looking in the back mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t work that way.

Let’s talk about the Chicago Teachers Union and what they want to see in a COVID-19 safety agreement. It seems like much of what you want to accomplish is aligned generally with the union’s demands: 100 in-school vaccination sites, more COVID-19 testing, faster contact tracers. What is holding up a deal?

I think there’s a lot of alignment. Being in day seven, I can’t tell you exactly what’s holding up the deal.

What I can say though, anybody comes to the table with students first in mind and acknowledging the data and the science, you’re always going to have my support.

That also means when we see things turning the wrong way, we have to react accordingly as well. And so right now the data is very clear. I’m seeing it going in the right direction. Contact tracing has gotten stronger. It’s going to continue to get stronger. COVID testing is going to get stronger, based on the ramp up that we’re seeing. And we have vaccines around the corner.

I hope that all of our partners, all of our stakeholders, and all of our parents, that we all can get on the same page. I feel, frankly, that our parents are already there.

How does it feel to be back home in Chicago?

My family’s in transition. My children cannot wait to come back to Chicago.

We’re trying to make sure they stay disciplined over there in their schools in San Antonio, but, as any parent, I’m in the process of looking at school options for my children, and it’s also a research project for me.

I’m actually trying to understand how the enrollment process works for CPS. It’s very complicated, which is a mental note for myself about, ‘We’ve got to make it easier for parents.’

But the good news is, like every family, we know our children. My daughter is in a wonderful dual language program in San Antonio, and that’s one of the things that I’m looking at here is our dual language options. And so I’m glad that we actually have a lot of dual language options here. So, I’m looking at that as we speak, but I’m hopeful that very soon my family will be joining me.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.