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Don’t tell Cindy Marten she can’t do something.

The City Heights principal has a way of smiling at such a suggestion that conveys confidence, amusement and a touch of cynicism. The 25-year educator, who last week was suddenly plucked from the ranks to lead California’s second-largest school district, isn’t interested in misanthropy. She doesn’t want to be told that things can’t be done. And doesn’t bother with excuses.

Marten’s long been a star at San Diego Unified. She’s the principal who harried trustees send reporters to for evidence that their policies are working. Last year, she helped lead the publicity charge against teacher pink slips, and when the teachers union and the school board came to an agreement, they announced it in front of Marten’s school, Central Elementary.

Now, she will lead a district still struggling with a structural budget deficit. She’ll be tasked with righting a massive ship where, by comparison, her school was a rowboat.

We sat down with Marten to press her on some of the tricky issues she will be facing.

Questions and responses have been lightly edited.

What three narratives should we at Voice of San Diego follow at San Diego Unified?

There’s only one narrative.

This board is interested in a quality school in every neighborhood.

Within that narrative, this board and the current leadership team has decided that there’s 12 different indicators for a quality school. So, I’ve been hired by the board of education to lead Vision 2020 and to lead the implementation of a quality school in every neighborhood.

Some of the decisions you can’t make as the new superintendent are the fiscal decisions that were made in recent years.

The district’s going to be struggling for the next couple of years.

I have to lead the financial decisions with an instructional focus.

I am going to ensure excellence for every child in every school in every neighborhood.

It doesn’t matter if I have $5, $500, $5 million or $5 billion, I have to spend those dollars in a way that’s going to make a difference.

There have been times at Central, when I first came to this school 10 years ago, when our budget was far more robust than it is now. There’s times when you have plenty of money, and there’s times when you don’t have a lot of money, and you still have to make decisions about how to spend the dollars you have now.

So, the priorities have to be clear. And my job is to lead that conversation around what are our priorities in this district.

When the priorities are clear, then the decisions are clear and easy.

So your job, as you see it, is to lay out these priorities?

I have to lay out constantly, consistently and clearly, the vision and the mission of this district.

When 92 percent of your budget is spent on salaries and benefits …

But we don’t know that.

That’s what I’ve been told again and again by the district.

I’m not going to accept that as a truth, but I’ll accept the premise.

Accept the premise that it’s right up there. Does that really give you that much leeway, that much flexibility to change much?

What about how you use those people, the positions those people hold, what services they’re providing, what programs they’re a part of?

People need to be doing the right things. And who gets to decide what the right things are? You can’t decide what the right things are unless you define your mission and vision. If that’s not clear, then the organization is fractured and there’s fragmentation.

We need to make sure there’s no more fragmentation.

Do you think that’s possible in a district of this size?

Yeah. Absolutely.

How do you do it?

That’s my job.

You’re talking about leadership. How does Obama get everybody to gather around a big idea? In education, what’s easy is that we’re all actually here for the same mission already: We’re focused on getting children to learn.

Gathering people around ideas is about inspiring hope, it’s about getting them back to the roots of what they came here to do and empowering them with the tools and the resources for them to do what they know they want to do in their hearts.

When you get the heart engaged and re-engage the heart and re-engage the mind, hearts and minds engaged is what gathers us around one big giant idea.

Last time we were sat here in your office, we talked a lot about data and teacher evaluations.

Data gives you feedback.

It’s information, it’s neutral. It’s not right or wrong, it’s neutral.

It’s feedback on what you’ve done and it’s not what I’m here to produce. I’m here to produce an actively literate, contributing, participating member of society.

Sure, but data is a tool, right?

No, it’s a byproduct.

My understanding, when we talked about this, was that you had data, and you were able to use that data to better inform you where teachers needed help to improve their students’ grades.

That’s more than a byproduct, it’s a tool you can actually use to make conscious decisions that help in your goal.

It’s a tool to help drive your instruction. Data should inform and drive your instruction. But it’s not what I’m producing.

A teacher is totally inspired when I say, “What you need to deliver to the public is an active, literate, contributing, participating member of society who makes a difference in the world.”

And, by the way, that child who’s going to grow up and make a difference, they also happen to have really good test scores.

Why is data such a polarizing issue?

People want to use it as a weapon, instead of a tool.

There’s also a portion of people who are involved in education who don’t want to use it at all.

Nobody says that.

Show me someone who says they don’t want to use it at all. I’ve never met one educator who doesn’t want to use it at all.

Maybe not an educator, but what about a union leader?

Union leaders are educators.

Union leaders would absolutely want to use data, but not as a weapon.

Isn’t there a point where the tool becomes, if not a weapon, then at least a mechanism to assess, evaluate and, if necessary, penalize people?

You’re not backing me into this corner.

OK, let’s just talk about evaluation overall.

If we’re moving to a period of economic stability, should changing teacher evaluation become a priority for your leadership?

What’s a priority is to ensure teachers have consistent feedback and support for constant improvement of instruction.

Teachers want to be effective, and they welcome support for that.

If I want a quality teacher in every classroom, there has to be a citywide conversation about what makes a quality teacher. And to define a quality teacher, we’re not going to reduce it to a test score.

You’re not going to tell me that’s the only way to define a quality teacher.

What’s your relationship with the teachers union?

I have so much respect for [teachers union president] Bill Freeman.

He understands the moral purpose of his work as a union leader. He understands children. He came from a struggling school and he taught children that struggled and he understands what that work is.

At the core, what he wants, and what I want, is for children to achieve and for children to have the very best opportunities to learn.

Because I know, at his core, he’s about children, I can work with him.

You say that about Bill Freeman, but we have new money coming in from Proposition 30 and 61 percent of that is going to pay adults more — to put more money in adults’ pockets.

I understand that has an effect — teachers are happier, we can attract the best teachers — but how is that really what’s best for the kids?

Is this a question about my relationship with the union, or about teacher pay?

You had said you believe Bill Freeman is totally about kids, but this seems kind of contrary to that.

It’s taking money that otherwise would go toward improving programs for kids, getting better equipment into classrooms, but instead it’s going to providing union members with a bigger paycheck.

Mm hmm.

I don’t want to get into that conversation now.

That’s an important conversation to have. When you have that conversation, you’re talking about values and what do you value and how do you value it.

As I engage in the struggle with the budget, I’m going to engage in a struggle about our priorities.

If the mission and the vision are clear, then the decisions around teacher salaries will be clear. But right now, there isn’t clarity. It’s a polarizing topic.

I can’t have that conversation without the priorities being clear.

I’ll let you get away with that, for now.

I’m not saying I won’t answer that.

We’ll revisit that in the future.

I’m not the superintendent yet.

When they asked me to become the superintendent, one of my reasons for saying yes is because I have a union president I know I can work with.

If there was a different union president, if there was a different board, if there was a different mayor … I think the political context to do what I want to do is one in which I can make a contribution.

I feel like I can be highly effective in the current context, I can engage in a healthy dialogue and conversation and focus on what’s best for children.

Your own CFO said most of the school board members were strategically placed on the board by labor unions. Do you agree with that premise, and is this a healthy board or not?

We have a group of five board members who said they unanimously and enthusiastically agree with my appointment. So there’s something the five of them agree on: my leadership.

I’m going to be able to effect change without the other drama when they don’t agree with each other.

And you believe they can make decisions that are best for the kids despite how they ended up on the board?

I believe that’s why they want me in place, because they see me as an instructional leader who can better advise them on what’s best for children.

I believe they trust me.

I think by putting an instructional leader in place, they’re saying, ‘We want to give back to the public what they entrusted in us, so we need an instructional leader to guide us.’

Bill Kowba built a solid foundation, so now this house I’m building is not on sand. I would not have said yes to this position five years ago, because I would’ve been building a house on sand.

Now, the foundation is solid.

Every year, we have a humongous deficit. Next year the district is solving that by selling off assets and increasing class sizes.

That’s the first draft of the budget.

It’s the first draft, but it doesn’t look like a solid foundation.

The first draft is just the opening conversation.

So you think it’s going to get better?

Yeah. But how will it get better?

Some magic money’s going to come from Sacramento, or we’re going to re-prioritize what we already have here?

It doesn’t seem like there are many priorities that can be re-jiggered.

There is plenty of money.

There are plenty of priorities that can be made. It’s all about priorities.

And I have to lead that conversation.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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