Editors Note: This is the second installment of the 3rd District RPS Board Candidate Guide. We asked all six candidates the same ten questions and will be releasing one questionnaire per day in the order they were returned. We did not edit any of the responses received for content, accuracy, spelling, grammar, or anything else. At the time of posting, we have received responses from 2 candidates: Kenya Gibson and Cindy Menz-Erb.
Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Menz-Erb
QUESTION 1: Tell us about yourself in 100 words or less.
I am a progressive Democrat, lifelong advocate for public education, 3rd district School Board Member and most importantly, a parent of two little girls. I have spent my professional career working in non-profits where I have had the honor of supporting families and schools for over a decade. I live in Bellevue with my husband, Dan, a social worker at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center and our two daughters: Charlie, who will be attending Pre-K at Holton Elementary and Raina, who is almost two.
QUESTION 2: Tell us why you are running for school board in 100 words or less.
I am running because I believe that public education can and should be an equalizer where all kids can learn, grow and thrive. When the 3rd district school board seat opened, I immediately applied to serve my community because I wanted to share my experience and expertise to help move RPS forward. Over the past four months on the school board, I have been compelled by the work before us. Having worked with an urban school district that serves 1 million students, I bring a fresh perspective and new ideas that I’ve seen succeed.
QUESTION 3: Why are you more qualified than the other candidates?
I am currently serving on the school board and working to move RPS forward. I sit on two ad-hoc committees, Facilities and Re-zoning, and Technology. I’ve visited all of the 3rd district schools as well as many others in RPS. I’ve talked with parents, teachers, and concerned community members to understand the scope of the challenges we face. I have regularly visited civic association meetings, district meetings, non-profits and foundations to meet the amazing people who work tirelessly for our children.
I have spent my career working for equity and justice in public schools and in low-income communities. I have a Master of Arts in Community Development from North Park University in Chicago. I have led two non-profits in New York City where my responsibilities included strategic planning, budget management, program development and evaluation, fundraising and staff oversight. My last role was as the Executive Director of LIFT-NY, whose mission is to empower families to break the cycle of poverty. Prior to that, I was the Executive Director of CFY-NY (now called PowerMyLearning) where the focus was to increase access to technology and improve skills of parents and teachers to ensure that students were supported in their learning. During my time at CFY, we partnered with the City of New York and the New York Department of Education to win and implement a $23 million-dollar stimulus grant to deliver services in nearly 100 Title I middle and high schools. Having the opportunity to partner with so many different schools, I have learned a lot about what it takes to improve.
QUESTION 4: What do you think ‘government transparency’ looks like in practice?
Members of the public ought to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, and to meaningfully contribute to the policies of their community. This is what government transparency means to me, and I am dedicated to providing transparency through action. In addition to current practices such as public forums and releasing documents, I will build on these practices and provide further transparency to the 3rd district through (1) periodic reports with updates on our progress, (2) regular attendance to neighborhood meetings to stay in touch with the community and answer questions, and (3) timely responses to all requests from constituents with an offer to meet in person when helpful.
QUESTION 5: What do you see as the #1 problem facing RPS? What is the solution?
Our current situation has been caused by school segregation when the city/county lines were drawn, followed by years of decay and disregard of a school division plagued by poverty and racism. To make meaningful progress, we need bold leadership across our city and an asset-based approach to challenges. We need to look at what’s working elsewhere and try new things in RPS.
This will require bold leadership and action by our city leaders to address a multitude of challenges at once. We must invest in our infrastructure so that kids have safe and secure places to learn. We must redistrict and set equitable policies around open enrollment and bussing. We must hire and retain talented teachers, administrators and staff. We must be innovative and individualized in how we support student learning and fight to teach beyond testing. We desperately need a sense of possibility, a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to try new ways of doing things.
QUESTION 6: Are you in favor of or against charter schools? Why or why not?
First and foremost, I am committed to supporting and improving Richmond Public Schools. The charter school debate is a complicated issue that should not be reduced to a binary choice. Our community deserves thoughtful representation that doesn’t make overarching judgments. In NYC, I saw the good and the bad of charter schools. I also learned that the policies that make good charters successful — autonomy at the school level for budgeting, purchasing, hiring and curriculum, intentional school culture, alternative assessments to standardized tests and partnerships with additional funding streams — could and should be applied in traditional public school contexts without having to open new schools with different management. I will advocate that we learn from what is working in other urban contexts and try creative approaches to improving our traditional public schools.
QUESTION 7: What does it mean to you to ‘support teachers’?
RPS has some of the most committed, compassionate and talented teachers. We must make sure teacher’s wages reflect how important their work is to our community and ensure they have a safe and supportive work environment. Additionally, I think it is imperative that teachers have a voice in the policies we set. Teachers are uniquely affected by the decisions we make on the School Board and their voices are invaluable. I am currently establishing a teacher advisory group in the 3rd district to help advise me in my work on the school board to ensure their voice is heard.
QUESTION 8: Do you support redistricting? Why or why not? If so, how would you approach it?
I do support redistricting and am currently on the School Board’s Facilities and Redistricting Ad-hoc committee. The overarching goals of this committee should be to ensure that all RPS students will have a healthy, safe and thriving learning environment with equal access to RPS resources. Where possible, schools should reflect the economic and racial diversity of the city of Richmond.
As a member of this committee, I am advocating that we assemble two working groups, a Facilities and Rezoning working group and Facilities Financing working group. The Facilities and Rezoning Working Group, which will include 10-12 members pulled from the Facilities Task Force of 2014-2016, should build upon the work that was done then by updating data and the current picture of RPS to make recommendations on a priority list of immediate needs (defined as 1-3 years) and long-term needs (defined as 10-year plan). The Facilities Financing working group will include 5-7 members with specific skills and expertise in this area and should review financing options and develop a plan for funding immediate term needs. My hope is to have this plan created and approved by the end of 2017. I would recommend that this structure continue in 2018 to finalize a 10-year plan for RPS with financing in conjunction with the Richmond 300 planning.
QUESTION 9: What is your opinion of the Mayor’s Education Compact?
The Education Compact provides a framework for all of our elected officials to work together in a collaborative spirit to improve outcomes for our kids. The challenges that our students face cannot be solved solely in school buildings. As a city, we must provide comprehensive and integrated supports for families that span from birth to high school graduation and beyond. It is pivotal that we recognize that poverty and a lack of access to high-quality health care play a significant role in the challenges our schools, families and kids face. I support the Education Compact and I am an advocate for its adoption by School Board and City Council.
QUESTION 10: What do you think are the most important qualities the next Superintendent of RPS must have?
Our next Superintendent must be a courageous leader who will take bold action for our kids. S/he should have a sense of possibility and should come at challenges with an asset-based approach. S/he should be a good listener who recognizes her own limitations and the neccessity for the entire RPS community to be involved in making positive change. S/he should have a deep passion for equity and a commitment to making tough decisions when necessary. S/he should have an unwavering belief in each child’s ability to learn and grow when given the right resources and environment. S/he should have a proven track record of success.