What motivates you to run for school committee?
Education is the foundation of our democracy. I grew up in rural New Hampshire in poverty. I didn’t have healthcare, dental care, food, or even consistent parental care – but I did have an education and because of that education I feel I am living a life far beyond the wildest dreams of my youth.
Education is under threat from privatization and also has an image problem. I believe a strong community can only exist if we have excellent schools that serve all students without regard to their family background (wealth or caregiver education). I also believe a community has a moral obligation to pay appropriate taxes to provide an education so that every child has the best footing for the world they will live in. Given limited resources, the focus has to turn to prioritization of what we do, and just as importantly, what we choose not to do.
I have the strength of character to say no when appropriate and to stay focused on educating our children by pushing an agenda that keeps the focus on the children and their education. This is not easy – there is so much more we could do and almost always that ‘more’ makes us feel good and is easy to call an accomplishment in the next election. Instead, I am focused on the basic drivers that limit the success of our children, such as varying levels of economic standing. All students are impacted when some of our students are unable to fully participate in school. The ‘8th grade trip to New York’ is a prime example. If this is a ‘school’ event, then it should be paid for by the school – all of it. But instead, this is a school sponsored event that does not allow participation by all students (the staff and administration do their best to help those students that can’t afford the trip and I do not fault them in any way for the situation).
I was the child left behind – and this motivates me to ensure all children regardless of circumstances have a strong and loud voice in their corner.
What experiences or skills have prepared you to serve on the school committee?
Listening is perhaps the most important skill any elected person should actively cultivate. It is far too easy to believe you know best, or to only get answers from a tiny set of voices – but there are more voices! Some are not so loud, and it requires me to listen harder – the quiet voices are important too.
My first term on School Committee included many trainings and three conferences. I learned about many topics that Medford faces now and in the future, and understanding how other communities have dealt with such issues so that we can avoid some of their challenges puts me in a position to effect change without blinders on.
I have held office hours over 50 times during my first term. I have served as the Medford representative to the Shore Educational Collaborative, and I have attended every event I could possible fit into my schedule. I will continue being available and being out in the community as often as possible to ensure I am connected to the residents of Medford and not living in an echo chamber.
In the past two years, what School Committee actions did you support or oppose, and why?
1) I supported the hiring of our new superintendent of schools, Dr. Marice Edouard-Vincent.
Serving on the Superintendent Search Committee was an experience like no other. The number of candidates we received applications from was quite large, and the number we interviewed was also substantial. This took a huge amount of time – but there is no decision a School Committee makes that is more important than hiring a Superintendent. I was proud of the process, the inclusivity of the various stakeholders from the community, and thrilled with our selection of finalists and eventually our new Superintendent.
2) I supported the decision to offer free breakfast to all Medford Public School students beginning in 2019.
Some of our children come to school hungry. Some are hungry because they don’t have sufficient family resources to provide a nutritious breakfast at home, while others are simply not hungry until about the time they get to school, and there are other reasons as well.
The reasons are not what is important and also are outside of the authority of the School Committee. What is important is that the science is clear, when children are hungry they are less capable of learning. Children that are distracted by hunger may also cause disruption to the rest of the classroom and that means a hungry child impacts the learning of every child. This is all preventable and our Columbus Elementary School has been offering universal free breakfast in the classroom for years now. This is the model I believe the science shows to be the best model, and one I have been pushing for since taking office. I am very proud that we are going to begin offering universal free breakfast in all our schools beginning this September. I will continue pushing to have the same model as the Columbus Elementary – where the free food is served at the beginning of the first period of the day so that children are not asked to choose between their desire for social interactions and their hunger.
3) I supported the implementation about the new free dental program in our schools.
A child suffering from dental pain, like a hungry child, is also unable to fully participate in their education and the impacts reach all children that share their classrooms. I am proud to have connected the program now implemented in our elementary schools to provide free dental screenings. Growing up I lacked dental care and lost many teeth through my teenage years – this was a very personal issue for me, and the response from the Medford Public School’s administration gave me confidence in their ability to implement new programming.
What are the greatest strengths and challenges of our current school system?
We have many strengths: a dedicated staff, a balanced budget, and a focus on our students as individuals. During my first term in office I have often been amazed at how little we spend to accomplish so much. I attribute this to the dedication of our staff, many of whom live in Medford, that care deeply about this community.
There are many challenges facing public education that are not specific to Medford. Change often comes with a price tag, and with very little in increased real revenue each year the status quo is often the only option. While School Committees must be focused on student performance, we are also expected to provide a safe environment for our students and staff to work.
We must make major renovations to our high school to both provide a healthy environment to learn and work, but also to reduce our carbon output so that we are not borrowing from future generations to education this generation. As global temperatures increase the number of days requiring air conditioning increase. Our high school does not have central air conditioning. As a pure matter of safety, we must renovate our high school and upgrade the infrastructure to allow for central air conditioning. I believe this is one of our greatest challenges because of the cost associated with such an upgrade – millions of dollars.
Our middle school configuration continues to be a challenge that requires focus. I am strongly in favor of a model of middle schools that places all of the students from the elementary schools together into a 5th and 6th grade lower middle school, and a 7th and 8th grade upper middle school. This will require substantial funding for renovations as the current buildings are not big enough to support this configuration. We will save money on certain staffing around special education, english learners, and provide a more integrated experience for our students. We would also have lower cost to create new programming such as some 8th grade introduction to vocational programs as we would only have to do this at a single building.
What initiatives would you prioritize in our school system?
A comprehensive computer science education requires careful planning, professional development, and integration into our school system. This work can begin in Kindergarten. Unlike other types of traditional topics such as math, english language arts, science, and social studies, this education is integrated into other curriculum areas, including math, english language arts, science, social studies, the arts, music, etc. We do not need to invent this but we do need to invest in it. A complete framework, with implementation guides for districts was created with every imaginable stakeholder and all we need to do is pick it up and go! I believe we need to have a dedicated Computer Science Director due to the nature of this work being cross-discipline and not sitting just within the science curriculum. This person would work with all department heads to figure how out to push into existing curriculum the concepts of computer science. This is a process that will take years, but the value to our students is both measurable and very high. Jobs requiring computational thinking have been growing for decades and the demand is not being met – and computational thinking gives our students the ability to take many jobs and to stand out among the competition.
Now that we are moving to universal free breakfast at all schools this fall, I will also push to have an in classroom model breakfast (often called after the bell) at all of our elementary schools (Columbus Elementary already has this model). Children, especially younger children, often choose social activities over basic physical needs such as hunger which can cause many children to choose playing before school over eating before school, even when it is free and the child is hungry. Again, this isn’t about what children should do, or what we as adults think they should do – this is about the facts – and to get back to the most important point on this topic – children that are hungry in the classroom impact ALL of the students.
Our after-school program has been unable to meet the demands of Medford families. We need to take a hard look at significant changes to this program to solve our capacity problems.
Medford has a broad diversity of students. How would you address the unique needs of various student populations? Be specific.
While I agree Medford has a broad diversity of students, the belief that just because we may have ten or twenty ‘groups’ means they are somehow different is one I’d challenge. I would argue that every student has different needs and that those needs change, sometimes very quickly, sometimes more slowly. Ensuring that every student has a trusted adult in school is one way to be sure each student has an advocate. Some innovative schools have implemented a monthly staff meeting to ensure every single student is known by name and that important details about that child are known by their teacher(s). Relationship is required for learning – and ensuring every child has a strong relationship with a teacher goes a long way to making sure our students can learn each and every day.
There are some ‘categories’ of students that do have needs we must always keep an eye on – such as students who are economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and students with housing and family crisis situations. I believe we are working hard on meeting the needs of these students, although there is always room to improve. I am confident the leadership we have in place is actively working on identifying gaps and implementing plans to close them.
Racial diversity is a given within our student body. However, racial diversity amongst our staff is another matter entirely. I have attended several conference sessions on these topics, and sadly this is a very complicated challenge. The science is clear that having teachers and role models that look like you are important. This isn’t to say every student of color has to have every teacher be the same color or ethnicity – but having just one teacher that does look like you has lasting impacts on outcomes for these students. Being able to relate takes many forms – but what matters is that students have someone to relate to. I have advocated for the Rooney Rule, which is not affirmative action and has no quotas or preference system. I believe there are qualified candidates of color but we must make the extra effort if we want to entice these candidates to come to Medford. Teaching is still a predominantly white profession, with 80% of teachers being white. However, with 20% of teachers being persons of color, it is easy to see that Medford has not made an effort to diversify.
In the last year we have started student clubs at the middle schools for students that are identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, non-binary, or who merely do not identify with a predominant heteronormative identity. I believe this is important to have at the middle schools, when students are often experiencing the challenges of identity. I believe we do need to do more work around gendered language within all our schools, but I see this happening and believe it is something that is progressing, even if not quite as fast as I’d like to see. As our staff are educated about gendered language I am confident they will make the very minor adjustments necessary to ensure they are not excluding any of their students – something I strongly believe they would never do on purpose! This all takes time, and require opportunities to openly discuss difficult issues – but I also feel confident our leadership can offer safe, judgement free spaces for those conversations to take place. A recently published study suggests that moving to non-gendered language improved gender equality, a win-win for everyone!
Do you have any priorities for the school budget? What are they, and why?
The budget process has undergone some change this last school year. I believe there is much we need to do to continue to improve the process so that we can gain more clarity from the physical budget document. I am confident our Finance department is working hard to improve the process and increase clarity.
It is nearly impossible at present to determine costs per student other than at the global level as reported to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). I believe it is important to understand costs per student at the category level, by school, and in other types of slicing and dicing of the data. Again, I am hopeful we will get more of that in the coming year or two from our Finance department.
I would like to see our budget include a new public school information system that would replace our website, and disperse content management out to departments. Unfortunately, such a system is remarkably expensive, and requires at least one or two additional staff members, and professional development. I believe this is critically important because it causes parents of young children that have yet to enter school to get a very bad impression of our schools as the website is our first opportunity for most parents to interact with out school system. This bad impression leads some parents to opt for charter, parochial, or private schools before they have even had a chance to realize how great our schools are – this ends up costing us FAR more than a new website would in charter school reimbursements! We must find a way to get this done.
We have much deferred maintenance that needs to be reckoned with, and a lot of big projects on the horizon for which we do not have the resources, such as all the ‘new schools’ needing new roofs at the same time. We must work to do some maintenance a bit earlier than is necessary so we can break up the big projects associated with the ‘new schools’ which because they were all built at the same time will all suffer some major problems at the same time. Roofs and heating equipment for instance are all the same age and thus we can easily predict they will break down at about the same time – but we cannot possibly afford all of them at once. I believe, and have seen through the capital plan, that we are working to adjust some of the dates of these big projects so they can be staggered out.
What role should charter schools have in our public school system?
Charter schools are not public schools, no more than any other industry that receives tax dollars makes that industry a public industry. I have advocated for a mandatory survey be filled out by families leaving public schools for charter schools that the state administers and are anonymous to the city and school system, that asks why families have chosen to go to a charter school. I have often heard something along the lines of ‘we need to address why people are choosing charter schools’ as an implied statement that something is wrong with the public schools. Certainly some people are leaving public schools because they have had a bad experience – but others leave because charter schools have huge marketing budgets and spend that money to entice parents and children to enroll. Without a survey of why people are leaving, we have no hard data to help guide us on what we need to improve. We cannot improve everything – we simply lack the money – so having the data is a mandatory starting point in my opinion. I have personal experience with more than one family saying they switched to a charter to ‘see what it is like’. That may not be the predominant reason – but anyone saying they KNOW why families leave is an extrapolation of personal experience to explain the more than 450 families that have chosen charter schools in Medford for the upcoming year – and just like I will not extrapolate what I’ve heard to mean everyone leaves out of curiosity, no one else should do that with their experience. We need the data to act when we have such limited funding.
Charter schools also have the freedom to say what they want about how the funding follows the student, and we have no forum to counter their version of the story. They say the money simply follows the student, and that’s it – no harm to a district since the district doesn’t have to educate the student. I believe most families choosing charter schools do not want to harm their public schools and that’s why this is one of the first questions on charter school FAQ pages. Our fellow residents care about public schools, and they care about their children, and they believe they are making the best choice for their child. I do not doubt any of this!!
The truth is that the money does follow the student. But the school building that is big enough to educate the students of Medford have almost no reduction in cost. A classroom of 19 students requires one teacher. A classroom with 18 students still requires that one teacher. The truth is we never lose enough students to be able to cut a teacher. So our number of students go down, the amount of money we have to work with goes down, but our costs do not (yes, we buy less copy paper – but that is not over $12k per student per year).
The reality is we send $4m+ per year off to charter schools and the way we handle that is by dividing that up amongst all our students and providing them with less. Fields trips paid for by PTOs instead of the budget. No new website. No air conditioning in our high school. Deferring maintenance year after year. And on and on. This is the reality. And the charter schools say quite clearly there is no impact on the public schools. This is not a truthful statement and they know it.
I oppose Charter schools completely.
What is your stance on the PROMISE Act?
I fully support the PROMISE Act which will implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission by adjusting the funding formula to compensate for increased costs of in four areas: healthcare benefits; special education spending; english learner costs; and costs to educate low income students. The formula for calculating how much the state believes it costs to educate a student has been flat since 2001.
Like me, you, and everyone, the cost of health insurance went up, the cost of transportation went up, the cost of everything went up – but the state’s formula has remained flat because our legislature has been unwilling to tax the wealthy more to provide the nearly $1.5billion per year that the Massachusetts public education system should be getting. Wealthy communities have not suffered here – they have simply had a tax override every few years to increase funding because they know all too well that schools need more money than they are getting.
How can we increase parental and community engagement in school committee meetings?
I have held office hours over 50 times since taking office in January of 2018. This is one way that community and parental engagement happens, in my opinion. I am open to other types of meetings to accomplish improved engagement, but often I hear of a desire to have meetings that are simply illegal in Massachusetts.
School Committee meetings are bound by the form of government we have. I believe engagement, parental/caregiver and community, should be happening all around the School Committee meetings. While we have a community participation segment at the meetings, the format of our government does not provide a real dialog option. We are bound by the Open Meeting Law which the legislature passed but exempted themselves. Why did they exempt themselves – because they knew there were downsides (although I support the majority of the Open Meeting Law and the reasons to have it is indisputable). Those downsides include the inability of the School Committee to discuss a matter brought forth at a meeting by a member of the community if not on the agenda. This makes us all look like we don’t care or are disinterested and that is not the case.
Having conversations with one, two, or even three School Committee members is how I engage with the community.
I believe it is important to make sure the community knows how to speak with School Committee members. Our contact information is on the MPS website. I can be contacted by calling (781) 343-1630, emailing me at email@example.com, or messaging me on Facebook at fb.com/paulruseau
All of my contact information can also be found at ElectPaul.org
Everyone grows up holding personal biases. Please share an anecdote about a time that your own biases were confronted, and how you responded.
I grew up in poverty and without a functioning family to support my development. When I went to my regional high school I struggled with how to integrate with students that had functional families and support systems, not to mention adequate food, dental care, clothing, and healthcare.
After graduating I went to the local college. I saw many more students with cars, credit cards, and parents paying for school. The depth of the disadvantage I had experienced as a child became ever more clear and disturbing to me. Thankfully I was able to take advantage of the counseling center at my college and participated in therapy for several years – this was a life saving experience and to say it was transformative is an understatement.
Poverty continues to be a difficult topic for me in my personal life. I live in the middle class now, and while I have become accustomed to having plenty of food and shelter, taking vacations each year with my own family, and having a retirement account, I am still in constant dialog with myself about poverty.
It may not seem that having a ‘bias’ against those with means is a real thing. I would have to disagree, and I think it is a failure for those of us with means to not recognize the ways that poverty distorts day to day life. Living in a constant state where the stability of housing, food, and basic needs is not available is truly punishing on the psyche. The impacts of poverty on the development of children and adults is well documented and research continues to provide insights into ways this scourge on our nation can be addressed.
The biggest surprise for me since I was elected to School Committee is how painful it is to be discussing issues around poverty and students in need. I have been working on channeling that pain into fuel to keep me going and working on these issues because there are a lot of children just like I was, that need me to do this work.