7th District Candidate Questionnaire
Editor’s Note: This candidate questionnaire is for the Richmond City 7th District School Board Race to be held November 6, 2018. Gary Broderick is one of three candidates running in this election. Below, Broderick answers 10 questions presented to him via email. The other candidates, Cheryl Burke and Bryce Robertson, answered the same questions. No edits (not even for spelling) have been done to the candidate’s responses.
Question 1: Tell us about yourself in 100 words or less
I am curious.
I am strong.
I believe in preparation.
I’m an optimist.
I dust haters off.
I care what happens to my neighbor.
I like when people stand up to bullies.
I am someone who struggled in high school and was kicked out. But I had the opportunity to learn to love education and get my B.A in Media Arts because of my Mom’s dogged persistence. I’ve had the opportunity to become who I want to be in the world, through the dignity that comes with building unity and standing up for justice. I am a community organizer.
Question 2: Tell us why you are running for school board in 100 words or less.
I know we can transform RPS into a world-class school district. I’m tired of our community resigning itself to making do or having to strategize around which school to send a kid. All of our schools have amazing things happening already. Yet none of them have the resources they need to make sure ALL of our students can succeed. We need leaders with vision, long-term thinking, a commitment to finding bottom-up solutions, and political courage. I intend to support the growth of a multi-racial public education movement of parents, educators, and students, capable of taking on powerful interests.
Question 3: Why are you more qualified than the other candidates?
We live in a city where over 75% of our elected officials have taken campaign donations from either Altria, Dominion, or the Ukrops. Corporate elites move aggressively to intervene in democratic institutions and protect their low-tax rates, and the result has been the absolute starvation of our schools. Beholden elected officials debate piecemeal solutions or treat RPS like a charity case because they don’t have the independence to demand corporations pay their fair share of taxes. City officials call for audits so they can posture like they’re doing something, when they are not.
If we are going to transform this, we need leadership with a track record of taking on corporate elites and winning resources. I have that track record. I am a community organizer, and I’ve been deeply involved in the process of building unity across differences and winning just solutions. As a labor union organizer, I have experience negotiating contracts and developing just and thoughtful workplace policy. I know how to construct high morale school buildings in service of our educators and students. As a public education advocate, I’ve been involved in bringing parents, students, and teachers together to defeat elected officials who were not supportive of public education. I also played a leadership role in successfully pressuring the School Board to put forward a needs-based budget and winning democratic reforms to the Mayor’s Education Compact. I bring a track-record of long-term thinking, thoughtful policy development, and political courage. I believe these are the qualifications necessary to transform Richmond Public Schools.
Question 4: What do you think ‘government transparency’ looks like in practice?
Government process should prioritize participatory involvement from all of its stakeholders, especially those who are often afforded the least access to power. When we talk about government transparency we often focus on the burden we place on public institutions to remain formally public, with open and well-documented meetings, timely release of documents for public review before decisions have been made, and clear budgetary priorities. Those are important items. RPS doesn’t have a great track record on transparency, and I will advocate to turn that around. We know that when decisions are being made behind closed doors, it is much more likely officials are picking winners and losers — often at the behest of their donors. It is when we force decisions to be made in public that elected officials are under the most pressure to come up with solutions that will benefit everybody.
Further, for government transparency to be substantive, it needs to happen in a context where we interpret “for and by the people” to include investment in good faith public engagement. This means that rooms that host public meetings need to have adequate space for attendees, community members are clearly informed of their rights with regard to process and input, and meetings are well publicized so communities know in advance and can make the necessary arrangements to attend. Only through dedicated outreach can public process go beyond the ten or fifteen familiar faces we see regularly at public meetings and reach broader communities who often go unheard.
I have a track record on both counts: fighting for transparency in process and engaging communities in that process. As a community organizer I worked with parents, students, and teachers to ensure democratic reforms to the mayor’s education compact, which initially explicitly allowed for closed meetings between elected leadership and corporate elites. I’ve also organized alongside families and teachers to hold leadership accountable when choices like school start times and teacher work hours are decided unilaterally by the RPS Administration without required public oversight.
I am committed to transparency and I believe we benefit from the solutions formed when the most amount of people have access to information and can participate in informed ways.
Question 5: What do you see as the #1 problem facing RPS as a whole? What is the solution?
The top challenge we face in Richmond Public Schools is simple: there are not enough adults in our buildings. In 2016 the Commonwealth Institute released a report of the impact of persistent defunding of schools, a trend that has done particular harm for staffing. While enrollment grows, staffing decreases, leaving both students and educators without the support they need in the classroom and in the hallways. We don’t have a nurse for every school. We don’t even have enough bus drivers to bring students to the school, without having to double or in some cases, triple back.
In the east end we see this manifest in many ways, but there are three outliers: low student literacy rates, harsh disciplinary policies, and decaying infrastructure. We’ve cut costs on reading specialists, support staff, and custodial staff; in each area we’ve felt the losses profoundly. Less than 50% of students in our district read at grade level. Our district has some of the highest in-school referrals to law enforcement. Our district has some of the most toxic and unsafe environments for our students and staff.
The solution to this crisis is to expand funding, staff positions, and advocate at the state level to remove the legislatively imposed cap on support staff in schools statewide. There is no substitute for appropriate and safe school staffing. Our students deserve more. We can have safe schools, high literacy rates, and schools staff with well trained and well compensated professionals who are prepared to invest in a career in RPS.
Question 6: What is the #1 problem in the 7th District? What is the solution?
There are a number of systemic problems that have disproportionate impact in the 7th district, and I’ve named literacy levels, school referrals to law enforcement, and facilities degradation above as examples. These problems all stem, however, from a single root cause: the lack of political power afforded most 7th district residents.
Richmond’s 7th district is home to some of the city’s lowest-income residents and highest concentrations of public housing. Voter disenfranchisement is widespread in our district, public transportation is insufficient, and few opportunities have been created to support district residents in engaging more directly with the governance of our public schools. Many of our schools do not have a PTA, and there is no clear support structure for assisting parents in building one. This is the #1 problem in the 7th district, a lack of political power and the means to build it.
Question 7: What is your opinion on the recently adopted RPS Strategic Plan?
Richmond’s recently adopted strategic plan offers us some exciting possibilities, but to see those through we need to align those possibilities with concrete budgetary and staffing commitments. Our strategic plan sets high goals for innovative curricular outcomes, expanded nursing staff, necessary programs like restorative justice. These are admirable goals. For us to reach these goals, we will need staff, funding, and clear commitments from our city and state.
Our strategic planning process omitted the setting of budgetary and staffing priorities. This lack of concrete planning has already affected our ability to meaningfully realize the plan’s stated goals. First, by disassociating the strategic plan from our operating budget, our administration has relegated the school board to an advisory role with regard to the strategic plan’s implementation. Our school board should have the authority to align our plan with spending and staffing. That has not occurred. Second, the lack of concrete prioritization of resources has imperiled the full-scale realization of some of the plan’s most highly-valued components. The recent cancellation of the Request for Proposals for restorative justice programming illustrates these concerns. Restorative justice is an excellent example of a high-value commitment that needs resources to succeed. Too many schools across the country put forward restorative justice as a moral priority, but fail to assign it appropriate infrastructure. In these cases we see restorative justice facilitation passed on to already overburdened teachers without adequate training, space, or support staff. Without space or co-teachers, teachers might find themselves trying to facilitate circles in the classroom or in the hallway, while other students wait without supervision. This is not meaningful restorative practice, rather it relegates restorative justice to an unfunded mandate.
Like many across the city of Richmond, I’m excited to see high aspirations for our school district. Our students, our families, and our educators deserve an equitable, world-class education. Now that this vision is set, we have to demand it be realized with clear policy and supportive funding. This will require ongoing community input. The strategic plan has already been improved by the organizing of teachers who demanded teacher retention be included in our metrics for success. As we do the real work of aligning a plan with our budget and our staff, community voice will be an essential aspect of realizing this plan’s vision.
Question 8: What is your opinion on how teachers should be evaluated and performance-based pay?
The goal of teacher evaluation is to improve pedagogical practice in order to improve and enhance student learning. The driving factors for the design of teacher evaluation, then, should be those that prioritize student wellbeing, classroom culture, and community development.
Teacher evaluation should be a comprehensive process that is led by active educators and serves to support their professional development. A truly dynamic, educator-led process may vary across the district to meet the needs of individual schools, classroom and student contexts, and teacher work profile. I would recommend assessment that draws on a range of source materials, from peer observation to principal observation and portfolio submission of materials created for lessons, lesson plans, and write-ups of how lessons went. It is critical for morale that teachers understand themselves as being supported by school admin in their efforts to improve, not surveilled for failures.
School communities are not served by “performance pay” systems. Individual teachers may benefit, but it is at the expense of students and the majority of educators who benefit from an environment of cooperation, emphasis on comprehension over memorization, high morale that comes from fair pay for all, and the dignity that comes from doing our part for the public good.
There are many noteworthy studies that put forward when it comes to pay as motivation, the distinction that matters the most is whether or not the person is being paid well enough to meet their basic needs. Beyond that cognitive studies have suggested pay does not exist is a motivator. These conclusions are particularly relevant for us, is those that push for merit pay are asking us to consider it an environment, where teachers in Richmond make about $15,000/year less than the national average, and many work second jobs.
Corporate elites often attempt to leverage their political influence to push for so called “pay for performance,” both because merit pay justifies a salary stratification that keeps labor cost down, and thus protects low tax rates for corporations. But it also serves as an ideological justification for their own exorbitant salaries.
Even those, who desperate to do something different, are sympathetic to the idea, should spend time thinking about it in practice. It is not a coincidence that this is a policy largely pursued by corporate education reformers who often pair merit pay systems with teachers having to sign away due process rights as happened in Washington D.C, and North Carolina among other places. In practice, it requires a doubling down on standarized testing, as the way to measure student achievment outcomes.
Let’s take a moment to consider three of the dozens of scenarios created by merit pay that are antithetical to the type of schools we want: (1) imagine a teacher who recieves higher pay and is able to quit her second job now competing against teachers who still have their second job, and the monopoly like effect of their respective outcomes getting further and further apart. Or, (2) imagine a group of Kindergarten teachers dividing up their class rolls and fighting with each other over who will have to take the kids with disabilities, or who will take the kids known to be in poverty based on where they live or older siblings. (3) Imagine parents doing research or through word of mouth finding out who is the highest paid teacher. We have teachers who are more sought after now, but that is different than the district having a categorical position that they are a better teacher. The result will be students with the most active parents (and so who are already disproportionately likely to succeed) demanding the teacher who already has the highest scores. Will the school say no in the interest of making sure the workplace environment is fair? Will the school say yes and in effect, create a separate track within the school?
Where peformance pay has been attempted there is reports of it killing morale and highly regarded teachers being dimissed based on test scores. Richmond schools and students deserve better.
Question 9: Do you believe RPS needs to consolidate schools? Why or why not?
First, I respectfully challenge the language of “consolidate schools” used in the question, which I believe is a misnomer. We are talking about school closures. If elected officials or those of us seeking elected office believe certain schools should close down then we should be willing to say so publicly with direct and honest language. I am categorically against school closures.
School closures have been lauded nationally by corporate reform advocates as saving money and streamlining school administration. All the data we have to date demonstrates that this policy has failed and has been implemented in a manner that has disproportionately harmed communities of color, especially black communities. Perhaps the flagship site that illustrates this is the Chicago Public School system, where in 2013 the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights appealed to the United Nations to investigate school closings as a violation of the human rights of students in families. Just this year the National Teachers Academy has sued CPS for the same issue, and in a week school policy specialist Eve Ewing will release a book on the racist impact of closures in Chicago Public Schools.
I strongly support small, neighborhood schools over the end result of school closings: large, unwieldy schools that are marketed as “cost efficient.” Small schools by necessity serve smaller sectors of the surrounding neighborhood, increasing the ability of educators and staff to identify local needs, and adjust programming and staffing accordingly. Neighborhood schools reduce the distance students travel each day, increasing student safety while decreasing student absences, and make schools more accessible to parents and families. Conversely, large schools present a range of stressors that decrease overall student learning. Larger schools serve larger regions, increasing pressure on families to adjust for increased transport times and reduced walking safety. They also make it much harder for school staff to adjust to the needs of students immediately surrounding their schools. Larger schools disempower parents and communities by presenting them with more teachers, staff, and administrators to navigate, and putting parents in conflict with one another as they advocate for resources for their own children. Large schools consolidate students with very different contexts into classrooms, demanding teachers adapt their work to meet the needs of students with a broader range of skills and resources.
Finally, I think it’s important to say that our philosophy of school administration should not prioritize cost savings over student and community needs. It is not cost-efficient to educate a student with a disability, but that student has an inalienable right to a high-quality education. In Virginia our legislators have capped the number of support staff our public schools can employ. One outcome is that students with disabilities are disproportionately targeted by referrals to school law enforcement.
We have a moral mandate to meet all student needs, without putting financial cost ahead of community gains. There is enough wealth in this city to meet those needs. With a progressive tax structure we can certainly do so.
Question 10: Concerns regarding the local school board retaining it’s power have been raised in discussions including the Mayor’s Education Compact, VDOE’s MOU, and RPS’s newly passed strategic plan. How do you believe the school board can protect it’s autonomy?
A little over 10 years ago, 26 corporate leaders, known as the “gang of 26” wrote a letter to then Mayor Doug Wilder, claiming Richmond should have an appointed school board rather than an elected one. Further, they claimed, matter of factly, they should be the ones to make the appointments. That undemocratic sentiment was defeated. However, attempts at undermining democratic governance continue, including by some of the signatories of that letter.
It is not a coincidince that the Movement for Black Lives (popularly knowing as “Black Lives Matter) put out policy papers on public education calling for an end to both Mayoral and state takeovers, recognizing them as part of the process of privatization. Democratically elected school boards are a way to keep power and voice at the grassroots, where parents, teachers, and students reside.
One of the way we lose democratic power is if wealthy special interests are able to use RPS’s desperate need for funding, in order to negotiate deals with the school district, where big money players have disproportionate say how the money is used. While it can feel reasonable that a company giving money would have say on how that money is used, this hides the fact that the company has the dollar surplous because it hasn’t paid enough taxes in the first place. Further, it undermines the principle of one person, one vote. Those with bigger wallets may be able to get more things, but they are not supposed to have more say than the rest of us, when it comes to our governance. That is supposed to be exclusively for the people by the people. As such, if Superintendent Kamras, is able to raise private dollars for RPS in his capacity as a public servant, then that’s great, but he does not have the unilateral right to agree to terms of those deals or decide how that money is used. The school board is the highest making decision body over schools and it has a responsibility to asser that or the loser is the citizen.
We will protect the autonomy of the school board and the democratic rights of parents, students, teachers, and other community members by recognizing that democratic governance is under attack, continued vigilance, and constantly doing the work of getting more and more community members involved in the process of democratically governing our schools.