Cheryl Rodriguez

Background

What motivates you to run for school committee?

My decision to run for school committee was made after much reflection about in what capacity I felt I could do the most good for the city that I and my family call home. After working to expand the PTO at my daughter’s elementary school for the past five years, running the Citywide Yard Sale for three years (the last two years proceeds donated to school related nonprofits), leading the school supply drive for two years (this year expanding to include middle schools and to involve local businesses in collection) and other great things like chairing the Harlem Wizards game as a founding member of the restarted Medford Elementary Citywide PTO, I felt that I wanted to serve in a way that would benefit our district as a whole. While I didn’t do all of this alone, I heard how schools were lucky to have a specific person, that they worried about when that person moved on. I realized that I didn’t want to move on. I wanted to work for all of the schools. I wanted to help make them all better however I could and the best way to do so was as a member of the Medford School Committee.

What experiences or skills have prepared you to serve on the school committee?

I have spent the last five years working on my daughter’s elementary school PTO. During that time I learned to write grants, created and chaired enrichment nights and taught parents and teachers how to do the same.

I am also the only school committee candidate (either incumbent or challenger) who has written and gone through the entire Community Preservation (CPA) grant process. In fact, I am on my second time through. The first time was to replace the surfacing for the Roberts playground. When the project hit a snag in the procurement process, I learned the Massachusetts procurement laws to help move the project forward. I was able to secure a bid that was under the grant amount allotted AND about 1/3 of the amount that the city received in the bidding process. I am ready and able to learn on my feet. When that challenge arose that could have halted the project, I was able to research, learn and also educate others on the proper process that delivered this project to our students. I intend to follow the other CPA playground grant applications to ensure that all of our students receive the play area that they deserve.

I have advocated for all Medford students, teachers and residents multiple times over the years at school committee and city council meetings as needed.

I also have completed most of my graduate work in English with a writing concentration and previously worked as a computer programmer.

 


Vision

In the past two years, what School Committee actions did you support or oppose, and why?

Two actions that I supported were: 1) the decision to move forward with the CPA application for the Roberts (and submit applications for others after). I feel it is very important that CPA funds are used where they can do a large amount of good. With nearly 600 children at each school and them playing outside for close to 180 days per year, this provides an instant improvement in a large number of children’s lives. These lots are also open outside of school hours to the entire community significantly expanding their reach.

2) the creation of a superintendent search committee. A committee of parents, teachers, administrators and school committee members who were able to develop criteria and go through some interviews. I eagerly attended all of the open meetings and felt that we needed this process to gain a new superintendent that we hope will thrive here.

Two actions that I opposed: 1) I spoke at a meeting about the bullying issues that many parents and students had shared with the school committee and that I thought we should bring in some type of curriculum/enrichment that would address this districtwide. I feel that if we care about the whole child that we as a district need to make a stand and let the students and parents know what expectations we have for how others are treated. This was rapidly dismissed as costing money and never revisited. I was very disappointed and hope to bring this issue to the fore again.

2) voting to allow a middle school lottery WITHOUT discussing logistics first. I expressed at the meetings that I thought that the division of students for the Roberts elementary in particular would lead to the standard education students placed in the McGlynn being socially isolated from their peers. I recommended that the division of those students be more equal to prevent that from happening. Because the school committee had voted to have the lottery and removed themselves from the logistics of how the lottery would work, there was no way to amend or alter the lottery. As a school committee member, I hope to reopen that discussion and prevent future students from feeling the isolation that some students will start the school year with next week. While they will make new friends, the path could have been smoother with minor alterations.

What are the greatest strengths and challenges of our current school system?

Our greatest strengths are our people! Our teachers, student and parents make the Medford School System what it is. Countless business owners and community members also play a strong role here. I have had the honor to meet and work with many of those people and look forward to meeting even more.

Our greatest challenge is always funding. There is never enough. We can always do more. We always want to do more. Grants and PTO fundraising work to address this as best they can. We are very lucky. We need additional funds for capital needs, special education, ELL, foreign language, arts, extra curriculars…the list goes on and on. Most of our issues and stress can be summarized as: lack of funds.

What initiatives would you prioritize in our school system?

I would prioritize initiatives that look at equity in our schools and not just equality. When assigning something like reading specialists to the elementary schools, we should be looking at how many students in each school need those services and then distributing the staff in the way that keeps the student to staff ratio the closest. Not just an equal number to each school. When distributing supply money to the schools, an eye to number of students and needs of the students should also be factored in. While it is far easier to give the exact same amount across the board, this is a disservice to the students when the same amount of dollars have to be stretched across more students and classrooms.

I would also like to take a deeper look at what items the district is providing and what items various fundraising arms are bringing in. I was surprised to learn that items like agenda books and even in some cases handbooks and graduation certificates are provided by PTOs and not included in the middle school supply budget. We need to ensure that if we are relying on volunteer groups to raise funds for necessary items, that we support them in every way that we can.


Issues

Medford has a broad diversity of students. How would you address the unique needs of various student populations? Be specific.

The primary way that we should address our diverse students, all of our students really, is to engage them, their parents and the teachers and administrators who are with them all day long. We need to hear them and then we need to act on that. Often times, we see people telling others what they need. That is not the way. We need to empower the students, parents and teachers. We need to listen to them.

One of the ways that I propose to do that is by having a school committee member as the primary contact for each school. Go to a PTO meeting, go to a staff meeting, meet with the principal. Talk to everyone, but more importantly listen. I learned a great deal by listening to the needs of all of these groups over the years. I find that it is easier to know what they need by showing that you are open and listening. You shouldn’t already have a chart and report written that says what they need. You are hearing. Sometimes what you hear will surprise you.

Having one point of contact (not closing door to contacting others) who is responsive to your school and understands your needs opens the line of communication. Many parents and teachers don’t know any school committee members. Knowing that there is one specifically focused on your school will work wonders.

Do you have any priorities for the school budget? What are they, and why?

My biggest priority for the budget is to comb through it and ensure equity as much as possible. It will take time. Ensuring that needs are met on a more equitable student to staff ratio rather than on an equal number of certain staff to each school. This will make meaningful change quickly.

I would also like to find some way to add a bullying curriculum to the budget. This is the universal issue in all schools. It is not unique to Medford, but we should tackle it. I want to see a program across the district…in all schools. We can’t rely on PTOs to deliver this. The amount is small, but the impact will be great.

I always want to see more technology in the budget (the money this year was great!) and hope we can find a way to include a replenishment amount in the budget. Perhaps we could try to lessen the budget impact by making an agreement with Tufts and other businesses to perhaps receive through donation their old equipment (which can often be newer that what we have). I have had some residents reach out to me to help facilitate some computer donations to the district when they upgraded. It has been successful on both occasions. This could relieve some budget pressure while gaining us needed equipment at no cost to us.

We should also be looking at needed maintenance and anticipating upcoming needs. Having a school committee member who is up to date on zoning and in a position to help negotiate items from developers to help the schools would be a valuable asset. I have that knowledge. We need an elected official to make these asks for the betterment of the district. Again this would add to the district and likely not impact the actual budget.

What role should charter schools have in our public school system?

Charter schools when initially created were said to be test facilities for various programs to see their worth. I don’t believe that they are fulfilling that initial purpose. While many students are getting a good education at the charter school, I feel that the formula needs some looking at. The amount allocated per student to the school is not a true reflection of what a “standard” education student is receiving within the district. In other words, the subtraction of one student from a classroom doesn’t save the district the money that is sent along with them.

One way to solve this issue would be to fund the students at a lower rate. Or given that the state is authorizing charters, perhaps the funding should come from that level. 9% of the budget can be taken by charter schools annually. That equates to approximately $6M this year.

What is your stance on the PROMISE Act?

The Promise Act is a good start, but we aren’t there yet. Programs like the English Language Learner program and various special needs programs are very expensive. They are hugely important, but perhaps it is time to look at funding these items from a state level. This would alleviate pressures on districts to try and keep these costs as low as possible because they worry about budgetary impact (a sad but very real scenario). Unfortunately, special education funding granted to a community is not based on the actual number or costs of the special education students in that community, it is just a fixed percentage that is much lower than actual special education costs and students (the Promise Act hopes to close that gap some but will still rely on a percentage). If this act passes, we need to monitor it and if it doesn’t work as expected, advocate for changes to it. It is not static. It need not remain unchanged for an additional 20 plus years before we address issues that may arise.

Having looked at the school budgets for many surrounding communities, you will find that ELL costs are significantly lower in districts that are more expensive to live in. So, communities that collect less property taxes find themselves unable to add as much supplemental city money to the school budget AND find themselves with higher ELL costs. The way to help with this would be for ELL to be funded at the state level.

The more I learn about the school budget, the more I hear the term “unfunded mandate.” The state requires items but does not provide enough funds forcing cities to offset the amounts with funds that they may have needed elsewhere. I am pleased to see that more realistic numbers will be set in for the costs of health care for employees as health care costs are a very large part of the budget and need to be realistically accounted for.

I am hopeful that this bill can improve the situation, but mindful that we must monitor it to ensure that it actually does.

How can we increase parental and community engagement in school committee meetings?

I believe that the best way to increase parental and community engagement in school committee meetings is for school committee members to increase involvement in the school communities. Not just at election times, but at all times. Each member should be “assigned” to a school. This will allow that member to be responsive to that school and the needs of the students, parents, teachers and administration. While I would never suggest that the community can’t reach out to any member they choose, I believe that knowing that there is a member assigned to help understand the needs of that school that people will feel more comfortable reaching out to that member.

That member should attend at least one PTO meeting, one staff meeting and meet with the principal at the start of the school year and before the budget process begins. These appearances should be announced ahead by the schools so that the community can come out or send in questions and concerns for the member.

I would also like to see meeting notices and agendas shared by our PR person and school administrations. Better efforts to ensure the public knows when meetings are happening and what is being discussed would certainly increase attendance of those who are interested in items being brought to the table.

Another great way to up attendance might be to have a 15-30 minute block before a meeting for community members to speak with a school committee member. Even something as simple as a suggestion box at each school and city hall for community members to drop concerns would be an improvement and cost neutral.


Bonus Question

Everyone grows up holding personal biases. Please share an anecdote about a time that your own biases were confronted, and how you responded.

I remember reluctantly attending my first PTO meeting with my husband, Alex. I had always thought that PTO moms were too cliquey and not very nice. I felt like they didn’t want our help because they had it handled. I was nervous to attend. At one point in the meeting they asked if anyone was interested in becoming PTO president and my husband’s hand went up much to my horror. He didn’t become president, but ended up being secretary for the next four years.

I made some great friends on the PTO and was sad to move on even if everything wasn’t always perfect. They were extremely hard working women who all had a common goal – to make the school better! It was empowering to be lifted up by others who wanted to help me and a pleasure to roll my sleeves up and help them when they needed me.

When I think back on all of the great things that I accomplished since joining the PTO and advocating for that school and then other schools, it seems shocking that I could have missed out on all of that if I let my biases about PTO and the moms involved with it keep me away. If I hadn’t accompanied my husband to the meeting that night, it all could have gone differently. Thanks for the push, Alex!