The elementary school assignment was an oldie but a goodie: Come to school dressed up as your hero.
But the 8-year-old who showed up for class in Washoe County, Nev., dressed as Pedro Martinez was not wearing a baseball uniform. He wore a little suit and tie, a miniature version of the district superintendent’s typical attire.
It was this Pedro Martinez — the warm, impassioned man whose impoverished upbringing is all too familiar to children in city school districts across the country — who the boy had chosen as his hero.
Martinez, 47, is one of four finalists vying to lead Boston Public Schools. An immigrant from Mexico who arrived in Chicago with his family at age 5, Martinez’s unlikely path to the superintendent’s seat in Nevada endeared him to families for whom he resonated as a role model.
His resume also raises some obvious questions. He has never worked as a teacher or principal — his background in accounting led him to high-ranking jobs in the Chicago schools before he left for Nevada.
And his recent stint as superintendent in the Washoe County, Nev., School District ended badly last summer. A confounding, litigious dust-up with the elected school board there led to a buyout of his contract amid accusations — apparently unfounded — that he had overstated his accounting credentials.
But many who worked with him there, including some with whom he clashed, say Martinez is a smart, clear-eyed school leader whose focus on improving children’s education was never in doubt.
“I would hire Pedro again, with a few caveats,” said Dave Aiazzi, a former school trustees in Washoe County who was on the board when the relationship with Martinez blew up. “On his last evaluation, I said I’d give him and 88 or 90 percent. I still would.”
Aiazzi acknowledged that this might come as a surprise in Washoe County. But he said communication, not competence, were at the root of the row in Reno.
Others in Nevada were not scared off, either.
Shortly after parting ways with Washoe County — where graduation rates ticked up in each of his years at the helm — Martinez was announced as the governor’s choice to lead the creation of a special statewide district aimed at turning around Nevada’s most troubled schools.
Such schools are familiar to Martinez. He was the first in his family — he’s one of 12 children, 10 surviving — to graduate high school and attend college. His father, he said, never made more than $7 an hour. And in 2003, when he met Arne Duncan, then the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools and now the US Secretary of Education, it was to give him a piece of his mind.
Of the 700 students in his ninth grade class, Martinez said, only 170 graduated with him.
“I said, ‘Arne, you know, you just don’t get it. You have 90 percent of your children in poverty. Ninety percent of color. They have nothing else but you,’ ” Martinez recalled saying. “‘Education is the key, and you just don’t get it. You just don’t act like it.’ I thought that was the end of it.”
Within a month, he was he was budget director in a district serving more than 400,000 children. He was eventually promoted to chief financial officer.
After Duncan left for the federal government, Martinez realized that running a school district was what he wanted to do, too. In 2009, he was one of the small handful of would-be school leaders accepted to the Broad Academy, a prestigious — and controversial — training ground for would-be superintendents of urban school systems.
Martinez soon applied for the top job in Washoe County, and instead was given a deputy superintendent post.
“What struck me then and struck me now is his passion for students and laser focus on student achievement,” said Estela Gutierrez, one of the trustees who hired him and the only one who openly opposed his suspension later on.
She said she was never concerned about Martinez’s lack of classroom experience, because his compassion was obvious: She said he was known to reach into his own wallet to help low-income families in need.
“When he is at a school, the way he deals with parents and kids, he doesn’t stand up. He kneels down, talking to students at eye-to-eye level,” said Gutierrez. “He’s a role model — his strength communicating with people in the community is remarkable.”
But internal communication — particularly with the board elected to oversee the district there — was not as smooth.
Several Washoe County trustees did not return phone calls for this story; one who did, Howard Rosenberg, said he was unable to discuss Martinez because of the terms of the legal settlement between the district and its former superintendent.
Court documents detail the dissolution of the relationship.
In a work session last July that was found to have violated Nevada’s open meetings law, school board members confronted Martinez about his claim that he was a certified public accountant. Though Martinez had completed the necessary coursework — he holds a degree in accountancy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a masters of Business Administration from DePaul — he was not a licensed, practicing CPA.
Somehow, this distinction escalated: In a court filing, the school district’s lawyers wrote that Martinez “reacted in a beligerant and defiant manner.” He was relieved of his duties, and soon filed a lawsuit accusing the district of violating his contract.
Martinez’s lawsuit was eventually settled following mediation. The district paid about $700,000 to end the lawsuit, including payment of Martinez’s legal fees and pension benefits, along with a year of his salary.
“It was a circus,” said Perry Di Loreto, the prominent owner of a Reno home building firm who has long taken an interest in the Washoe County school system. “You eliminate a lot of that with an appointed school board,” such as Boston’s School Committee.
Martinez now refers to the falling-out that led the end of his stay in Reno as a misunderstanding — one in which he acknowledges he was at least partly to blame.
“I have to own this,” he said during one of his series of public interviews in Boston on Thursday, acknowledging that he did not do a good job of communicating his plans to school trustees in Reno. “If that relationship is severed, it can all fall apart.”
Now, Martinez — a father of two young children — is aiming to solidify struggling city school systems for kids like he was. Children in Boston, he said Thursday, should expect better.
“I believe this city deserves better performance,” Martinez said. “I think our staff deserves better performance. And I think our children deserve better performance.”