Q&A with School Board candidate Ruchi Medhekar

Ruchi Medhekar is one of three candidates vying for two seats on the PUSD Board of Education. This is her first time running for public office.

What is your age and how long have you lived in Piedmont?

I am 42 and I’ve lived here since 2016.

What you do for work, either in or out of your home?

I am the Chief Product Officer at a healthcare IT company, where I am responsible for the product and strategy of the business.

If you have children, do they attend, or have they attended, Piedmont schools? If so, which ones?

I have two children, in kindergarten and 4th grade at Beach.

Have you worked or volunteered in Piedmont schools (or elsewhere) previously? If so, in what capacity(ies)?

My experience has been as a volunteer. I’ve been a room parent, a room parent coordinator, VP, President, and 4th grade special events in the Beach Parents Organization. I am part of the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP, which describes the goals to support positive outcomes for students) and the tri-school site council (to develop and monitor the elementary school’s plan). I’m part of the Budget Advisory Committee (to communicate information about the district’s budget). I’m on the board of the Piedmont Education Foundation. I was also selected by City Council to be on the Piedmont Recreation Commission.

Before I had kids, I volunteered for two organizations in Los Angeles. The first was called Reading to Kids, where the goal was to inspire a love of reading in underserved elementary age kids. I was also on the board of an organization called Expanding Your Horizons, which exposed underserved elementary aged girls to STEM.

What does public education mean to you?

I think public schools (along with national parks) are one of the best things about our country. I am inspired by the idea that we, as a society, see the importance of educating the next generation. By ensuring a high-quality education for all, we are lifting up our entire population and making an investment in our future. The reasons why public schools came into being – including preparing people for jobs and citizenship, unifying a diverse population, and promoting equity, among others – remain relevant and urgent.

What inspires you to run for office?

I’m running for office because it is the best and most efficient way to influence the strategy and direction of our school district. Having spent time volunteering for Beach and for PUSD, I realize that the impact of my actions has already been limited. School board members influence our biggest decisions, including hiring a new superintendent this year. 

Having said that, running for office has renewed my faith in our democratic system and has made me feel more connected to our community, which is tremendously inspiring. I have appreciated getting to talk to people outside of my usual circles to learn what is important to my neighbors. It is a good excuse to strike up a conversation and hear people’s stories!

What are your qualifications to be on the School Board? Any special skills or experience the voters should know about?

In my professional career, I am responsible for the strategy and vision of our company. This translates neatly to the primary responsibility of a school board member. Practically speaking, this means that I have to learn about the topics that are up for discussion by reading, talking to experts, and understanding the perspective of different stakeholders.

Secondly, I “own a P&L” (profit & loss statement) meaning that I have to create and execute against a budget. This experience will help me ask appropriate questions during the budget process. Third, a big part of my job is to bring different stakeholders together to form a consensus and make an informed decision that is in the best interests of our company, which has many parallels with balancing the perspectives of parents, administrators, and teachers to ultimately serve our children.

What do you see as the most challenging issues currently facing the school district?

Our district has a culture and personnel problem that was exacerbated by COVID. Morale is down amongst our teachers and administrators. I witnessed how they worked around the clock and through the summers to try and meet the needs of our students. That doesn’t negate the fact that students and families suffered too – but we all did. We were truly in an exceptional circumstance. A core objective of mine is to regain and rebuild the trust between families, administrators, and teachers.

Our culture is an equal part of this problem. We need to improve transparency and communication in our district. We have to use reasoned analysis to understand the root cause and underlying issues. We should listen and be able to have nuanced conversations that lead to true buy-in from stakeholders. We have to give people agency and we should connect with respected experts in the field. Most of all, we should create a culture that allows mistakes to be made if they are rectified quickly.

What do you see as strengths of the Piedmont schools?

Our schools are a reflection of our community. We are blessed with highly engaged families who are generous with their time and treasure. Our community is endlessly talented. And, we are highly organized and prioritize public education. We have a community of talented teachers with a great deal of tenure and experience. 

It is easy to focus on what can be improved, because there are always things that we can be better at. But it is also important to recognize that we have a good foundation in place and that our particular set of competencies set us apart from other districts.

What will be your top priority if elected?

As a board member, my primary objective will be to serve all the children in our district and represent the entire community. I will do that by ensuring we have a high quality of academics and that we create a welcoming environment for all our students.

The most expedient way to meet this priority is to hire a superintendent who is aligned with this vision, has the experience to carry out these goals, and who will take a critical look at, and reevaluate, the processes that drive decisions in the district.

Do you see yourself being especially involved in any particular school issue or program, whether or not it’s your top priority?

To put it simply, I love to learn and am endlessly curious. I believe that curiosity can be cultivated by having the right teachers and by having a robust foundation of knowledge and skills that will give students what they need to thrive in all their pursuits and challenges.

To that end, it is incredibly important that we solve the problem of attracting and retaining teachers in our district. It is also essential that we rely on data to ensure that the foundation of knowledge and skills is appropriately meeting our student community’s needs.

If you are elected to the School Board, you will be involved in the search for a new superintendent. What will you look for in a candidate?

In my role as tri-school site council representative, I was involved in the search for a new principal at Beach. I was struck by the fact that some candidates see our district’s high test scores and think that we don’t have any room for improvement. They aren’t familiar with thinking through or solving for what could be driving declining enrollment in a highly engaged community.

Our new superintendent will drive the culture and practices that are critical to executing the vision as directed by the school board. I will be looking for someone with a growth mindset who understands how a high performing district like Piedmont can still make significant improvements. I want to find a superintendent who won’t be satisfied solely by our ability to reach benchmarks in state test scores, but rather who will find additional metrics to support new ways to grow and improve our district to ultimately serve our students.

Student surveys show many Piedmont students are struggling after the pandemic. How should PUSD work to resolve lingering learning loss and mental health challenges?

The pandemic created a disruption that has cleaved an entire generation’s school experience. No family is the same. In order to best serve our students’ learning loss and mental health challenges, we need concrete information about their needs. We have already used screening tools and surveys and have relied on our teachers to identify students in need. But there is also an underlying difference in all our students that I suspect will not be easily overcome without a different approach, interventions, and time. 

Fortunately, the district already has resources that we can leverage such as the Wellness Center, learning specialists in the school, and talented educators. PUSD received additional one-time financial resources from the state to address COVID-related learning loss. As part of the Budget Advisory Committee, I also know that we have identified areas where these funds will be used. We should leverage these resources and funds to deliver interventions where needed.

Teacher recruitment and retention has been a challenge for Piedmont in recent years. What should Piedmont do to improve this situation?

PUSD used to be a highly sought after district for teachers, but that has fallen off for a number of reasons. The first is that we need to pay competitive wages for our teachers and staff. That includes examining the schedule to improve pay specifically for teachers that are earlier in their careers and have less tenure. We know that many teachers will be retiring soon and we will struggle to replace them with newer teachers, where the wages are less competitive than proximal districts.

We need to step up our game and offer a competitive package. Access to Piedmont schools for the teachers’ own children was also a big draw, but that is less compelling due to interdistrict transfers. We should conduct win/loss interviews with teachers who don’t accept our job offers and understand what motivates them and what would get them to accept an offer. Our community is extremely talented – what other ways could we offer our teachers support? Help or access to retirement planning is one idea.

PUSD’s budget depends on state and local funding. What would you do to ensure our funding is robust?

At a minimum, as a district, we need to ensure that PUSD is the primary destination for all the eligible students in our town. Not only would that reduce our problem of declining enrollment, it would also increase the funding that we receive from the state. Every single student matters.

As parent club president, I was constantly organizing fundraisers (to pay for books and school supplies). Serving on the district’s Budget Advisory Committee and joining the board of PEF further educated me on how the district gets funding.

PUSD is not entitled to the federal and state funds that many other districts receive to support teacher salaries and essential materials. Our CFO is extremely talented and finds ways to get us access to grants for which we are eligible. But we are truly reliant on families in the community and the Giving Campaign to supplement and offset our expenses. The school board provides oversight – and could suggest creative ways to improve staff retention.

How should PUSD tackle the issue of declining enrollment?

During COVID, many families pulled their kids out of PUSD due to personal circumstances or to protect their kids’ learning and mental health. Many of those families have not returned. We are facing unprecedented challenges in attracting, hiring, and retaining high-quality teachers and administrators. We have to take a hard look at ourselves, dig through our data, and do a bit of a market analysis to understand how we can maintain our edge.

Loss of enrollment is an existential threat to our schools. Without students, we will not receive essential state funding we need to operate. We need to do the necessary analysis (for example, by using exit interview data from families and staff) to understand where students are going and why they’re leaving. I will also reach out to school board members in other exceptional districts to share ideas and learn from them.

The current board and administration have redoubled their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. How do you think the Board should support these goals?

Almost everyone I talk to in Piedmont is dissatisfied with how the district and administration are dealing with and talking about diversity. I think it’s time for a reset. There is a huge opportunity to find common ground and establish a common language. One of many frustrations has been the lack of transparency about the nature of the problem and the potential solutions that are on the table. Once we clearly define the problem and the concrete needs that exist for the students in our schools, we can understand the next steps.

I currently serve on Site Council and the LCAP committee, which has allowed me to hear some of the deeply hurtful experiences students have in our schools. I will use my voice to ensure that the district provides clearly defined goals, ongoing data collection and analysis to evaluate progress, and relies on clearly defined, evidence-based frameworks that are transparent and openly discussed in our community.

California’s most recent attempt to overhaul the state’s math curriculum framework has sparked debate. How do you think PUSD should approach K-12 math instruction?

This is a big deal and people in our community need to be well-informed about the different implications of the new math framework. As a woman scientist with a PhD in a STEM field, I expect my young daughters to have access to high-quality, advanced mathematics and science courses during their time as students in Piedmont public schools. The California math framework, as currently described, leaves this possibility in doubt. I believe students should have the opportunity to start algebra in 8th grade (and earlier if ready), take calculus on time in high school, and take advanced AP Physics. If we stop offering these options, we will not be able to compete with the majority of schools that are currently attracting away our students. 

We need to maintain high expectations, provide early opportunities to access challenging material, and provide lots and lots of support to our students to ensure their success.

School Board members must navigate a wide range of parent opinions and demands. How will you handle those pressures?

Our parent community is an incredible resource and one of the reasons I love living in Piedmont. COVID has provided countless examples of how parents have had to pivot and problem-solve to support their kids’ learning and our schools. I firmly believe that the parent community is an underutilized asset in key ways, which has been frustrating for many of us.

We have a remarkable level of expertise which PUSD has leveraged in the past (one example is the Curriculum Forum Committee, which has been inactive since 2014). In other exceptional school districts, there are opportunities for parents to collaborate with their schools to achieve the best decision for students, and we should be open to learning from those models. It is less about parents “getting their way” and more about the integrity of the process, and how (and when) to get buy-in for important decisions.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with voters about your candidacy?

My husband and I moved to Piedmont for the schools and the community and have been delighted by our experience and are so happy we moved here. Even though our town is small, we are mighty and there is always something to do. We’ve tried to do as much of it as possible. From having our girls in Cub Scouts, to walking in the 4th of July parade, going to movies in the park, building LEGO robots, and participating in soccer and swimming teams – our entire family is invested in this community. It would be a true honor to be able to give something back to this community which has given us so much.

Please share your candidate website and email with voters.

http://www.ruchi4piedmont.com | ruchi.medhekar@gmail.com

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