Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bruce Maiman: Twin Rivers superintendent with all the right stuff

A funny thing happened on the way to Cortez Quinn’s arrest last week. Few inside the Twin Rivers Unified School District paid much attention to their trustee’s latest drama. They went right back to work.

“In the past, people would’ve huddled and gossiped about it,” said Craig Murray, executive director of secondary education. “Instead, his name never came up. It’s a lousy situation, but it didn’t affect the work we’re doing for our kids. That was very healthy.”

Who gets credit for this? The district’s new superintendent, Steve Martinez.

In recent interviews with more than two dozen employees and community members, many of whom I’d spoken with months ago during the district’s worst days, no one had anything bad to say about Martinez. Repeatedly, the same buzzwords popped up: Authentic. Positive. Cares about the kids. Cares about the community. Listens to people.

“We’ve been praying for a change,” said board President Rebecca Sandoval. “I think God looked down on Twin Rivers and said, ‘Hey, this community deserves a break,’ and Steve came our way.”

Martinez’s academic and administrative tenure from his native Fresno satisfied the goal of the superintendent search, which was to hire someone with experience in a functional district.

“He’s highly capable of bringing this district out of the state of affairs it’s been in,” said Sondra Betancourt, a lifelong Sacramento resident and longtime neighborhood activist, “weeding out deadwood, moving forward, and he’s all about the children.”

While Quinn's fate is uncertain – he'll be arraigned Wednesday on 18 felony counts in connection to his relationship with a district employee – personnel changes are ongoing: Many administrators considered “deadwood” by a county grand jury report and an independent audit were already gone when Martinez arrived. Since then, others on that list have exited: three top HR managers and, in a streamlining of the district’s Financial Services Department, the chief financial officer and his longtime assistant. There’s also a new head of the Twin Rivers teachers’ union. These employees were all part of the old regime auditors largely blamed for a district whose environment was as depressing as it was dysfunctional.

“It’s a housecleaning,” Betancourt quipped.

Facilitated by Martinez? No one will say on the record. Certainly, he can’t, but you sense that he’s mastered a skill Winston Churchill once quantified: “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”

“Agree or disagree with my approach or ideas, like me or not, I’ll always bring it back to kids,” Martinez said in one of our two interviews. “You can never argue that I’m not doing what I truly believe is best for our kids.”

And Quinn? “The district is not defined by one board member or by the superintendent. Rather, the district is defined by the students, employees and community members,” said Martinez, who estimates he’s met with “hundreds of different groups,” parents and activists.

Among his many ideas: Partnering with Pacific Gas and Electric’s Power Pathway program, which provides job training for adults and high school graduates who can later work for the utility, its many contractors or other operations like Comcast and AT&T. That, combined with a relaunching of the district’s adult education program, could offer parents a pathway to future and even career employment.

“This is exactly where we want to go with our adult-ed program,” Martinez said. “PG&E has never engaged with an adult-ed program before, so this model would be the first of its kind in the state. With 22 percent unemployment, a public-private partnership like this can be a game-changer. With parents feeling a whole lot better being employed, having benefits, you get a student who is fed, clothed and ready to learn.”

His voice resonates with quiet passion and an infectious optimism.

If a single anecdote exemplifies the district’s new mood, it might be that of Sharon Hally, executive assistant to the board.

Prior to my meeting with Martinez, she expressed mixed feelings about leaving the next day for a two-week vacation in Hawaii. What?! Why?

“Because I’ll miss my job,” she said. “It’s now fun to come to work. We’ve finally hired someone with all the right stuff.”

She ought to know. As board secretary for the Del Paso Heights School District that later merged into Twin Rivers, she’s the district’s longest-serving employee.

“All the credit for that change in climate goes to Dr. Martinez,” noted trustee Linda Fowler. “I can’t give him enough kudos. I really can’t.”

“It’s all falling into place,” Sandoval said.

“Inspire, motivate, believe,” Martinez said. “I believe in our people, I believe in our kids, I believe in this community. We really can turn around this north Sac area and make it great.”

A ceremonial breakfast this Friday will highlight Martinez’s first 100 days on the job. It’s likely Cortez Quinn’s name won’t come up much there, either.