Bruce Maiman: Rising to the challenge at Twin Rivers schools

Published: Tuesday, May. 20, 2014 - 12:00 am

A year ago, even a casual observer of the Twin Rivers Unified School District might understandably have suggested they burn it down and cover the ground with salt.

Now, approaching the one-year anniversary of his hiring, Superintendent Steve Martinez is turning heads for turning a broken district into one of budding achievements, from smarter financing to infrastructural repairs to higher test scores and industry praise.

Everyone I spoke with, both in and out of the district, agreed: No one would have predicted such positive growth in so little time.

“Martinez has done more in his first year than someone else could’ve done in three,” said Alan Rowe, founder of the United College Action Network, a nonprofit organization whose educational partnerships help kids get into college.

The challenges were enormous: budget mismanagement, lawsuits, a sex scandal, illegal loans, police department controversies, grand jury investigations and infrastructural lapses. No wonder the district had the lowest student test scores in Sacramento County.

When clamor surfaced last fall involving HVAC units at two schools, some accounts tried to blame Martinez. That’s odd, given that the project had been delayed for nearly eight years.

“The public had complained the year before,” current board President Rebecca Sandoval said. “The minute Steve came, he put together a $1.5 million resolution before the board so installation work could begin.”

And yet, while working with a fractured staff and without a permanent chief budget officer, Martinez persuaded the board to hire a financial adviser to review and restructure a 2008 bond, which secured the resolution funding while saving taxpayers $2 million.

That should’ve happened under the previous management of interim Superintendent Joe Williams and his allies, Cortez Quinn and John Dexter. The HVAC units were already there but never installed.

“One reason Steve has been effective is that he doesn’t dwell on who’s responsible for the problem,” Dave Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools told me. “He takes responsibility for one, fixing it, and two, working to make sure it doesn’t happen again by hiring people who won’t overlook things like that. I can tell you Bill McGuire won’t let HVAC units lie around somewhere in the district.”

McGuire, as Gordon explained, is one of California’s most well-respected public school administrators and joined Twin Rivers in March as deputy superintendent. He’s one of several “excellent people Martinez has brought into the district office who I would hire in a minute,” Gordon said.

Along with first-rate personnel, Twin Rivers is now attracting the attention of endowment groups like the Stuart Foundation and Peter Senge’s Society for Organizational Learning.

Daniel Zingale of the California Endowment explains that in providing grants, “We look for the need but we also look for leaders who impress us as able, willing and ready to do something about it. In Twin Rivers, those stars have now aligned.”

“Moving forward, I’m excited about the partnerships we’re building with quality organizations that focus on student learning,” Martinez said.

He works at it, visiting schools, spending time with students and faculty, meeting with community leaders, delivering guest sermons at Sunday service. Genuine shoe-leather outreach, letting the community know that, finally, they have a leadership that wants parents to be engaged, and that their engagement will be accorded a respect that was lacking before.

“There hasn’t been a superintendent in these parts who’s reached out to the community like he has in at least 20 years,” Rowe said, “Except at election time.”

No wonder sophomores’ exit exam scores increased at every Twin Rivers high school this year.

My concern: While many vestiges of the past are gone, questionable individuals remain, resentful over having lost power but now looking even worse compared to a “new sheriff in town” who’s getting a job done that they couldn’t do. They want that power back so they can avail themselves of the spoils of the district. Why else would the local teachers union PAC pay Quinn’s fine for accepting illegal loans? Why won’t Quinn, facing more than a dozen criminal charges stemming from a paternity suit by a former district employee, do the honorable thing and resign? Why are certain other board members sniping childishly at Martinez on Facebook? Why is Williams, now an associate superintendent, the only district employee not paying his share of pension contributions?

My sense from spending considerable time in this district is that, as with Caesar, enemies are plotting against Martinez. Something’s afoot. Its actors have plausible deniability, yet everybody in the loop knows.

Why would anyone support opponents of someone who’s finally straightening this district out, other than for selfish gain? They can’t possibly think themselves more effective. If they had been, there’d have been no need to hire Martinez in the first place.

With a board election upcoming, those thoughts deserve serious contemplation.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at

Read more articles by Bruce Maiman

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