Turning around a troubled district

Jeff vonKaenel

Earlier this year, the Greater Sacramento Urban League’s president James Shelby told me that Twin Rivers Unified School District’s new superintendent, Steven Martinez, was the real deal. He said that Martinez was turning around the troubled district.

A little later, Sacramento County superintendent of schools David Gordon also told me what a great job Martinez was doing. This is high praise, indeed. A former superintendent of Elk Grove Unified School District, Gordon operates as a regional education godfather. Although lacking in firearms, Gordon has the intellectual firepower and connections to make things happen. He knows what it takes to run a school district.

So after both Shelby and Gordon told me about Martinez, I called the Twin Rivers district office to see if I could meet him. I wanted to learn more about what he was doing, and I wanted to share with him the work that SN&R has been doing with other school districts.

So I called the Twin Rivers communication director Zenobia Gerald to set up a meeting with Martinez. Now, Gerald is not the first communication director I have called to set up a meeting, but Gerald is the first one to tell me that I will love meeting her boss. Gerald implied that introducing me to Martinez would be like introducing children to the joy of ice cream.

So I met with Martinez. I am a big fan of ice cream, especially Vic’s Ice Cream. I left this meeting thinking of a double scoop of peach and chocolate on a sugar cone.

We had an hourlong discussion about the importance of engagement instead of rules, about the thrill of hiring art teachers instead of focusing only on test scores, about what could be done instead of what could not be done. Martinez conveyed his love of the students, teachers and staff. I was impressed.

I wondered if I could find an opposing view. Naturally, I thought of the teacher’s union. So I called Twin Rivers United Educators president Kristin Finney. Finney’s job is to negotiate with Martinez, not to praise him. Nevertheless, Finney told me that Martinez had made a real difference in improving the district. She praised the hiring of extra art teachers and improvements in school facilities. Many times when I ask a union rep about management, it is like asking a recently divorced person about their ex. But given the chance, Finney did not go after Martinez.

Martinez took the reins of the region’s most troubled district. He not only inherited the usual underfunded education system and poverty issues, but this district had repeatedly done knuckleheaded things. Knuckleheaded things like having an out-of-control police force, purchasing air conditioners that were never installed, spending massive amounts of money on legal fees, and having a trustee who not only had an affair with but also borrowed money from an employee.

Taking over the Twin Rivers district took some courage. I am glad that Martinez took the job. More importantly, I believe that 27,000 students are happy, too. Double-scoop happy.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.