Michael G. Melendez
District 102 School Board Candidate
Why are you running to be on the school board? What motivates you and what experience and perspectives would you bring to the job? How would those be valuable as an elected official?
During my four years on the board, I have had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful people throughout the district, all of whom are passionate about their children’s education. The work has been incredibly rewarding and I would love the opportunity to continue serving this district.
I am motivated by a strong sense of public service, and I am committed to serving the community I live in. During the first two years of my term, I spent a great deal of time working on special education issues with concerned parents and the administration. This effort culminated in the creation of the Special Needs Advisory Panel (SNAP), which was successfully launched during the third year of my term.
Over this past summer, as the school board president, I spoke seemingly daily with parents, teachers, staff, and administrators regarding our plans to return to school this fall. I enjoyed all those discussions, which were at times passionate and intense, and those conversations helped me more thoroughly understand the needs and concerns of those we serve.
We had a tremendous responsibility thrust upon us a board to help come up with a plan for a safe return to school this past year, with little to no assistance from state or federal officials. This experience will be incredibly valuable to both me and the district if I am fortunate enough to continue serving on the school board.
As a school board member you will be asked to balance what’s best for the district as a whole with what might be in the interest of specific groups. How will you do that? When have you had occasion to do something similar in the past and how did you accomplish that?
It is not unusual for groups to reach out to the board members to advocate for certain issues, but as a member it is critical to remember that an individual member has no authority outside the board.
We saw that in August when many people wanted us to start fully remote while others wanted us to offer some type of in-person instruction. We are also currently experiencing that again as we evaluate whether the district will offer a full day option later this spring. There are groups advocating for us to adopt a full day model, while other groups are hoping we continue with our current options.
I think it is important to hear from various perspectives on any given issue, and ultimately, we have a responsibility to make decisions based on what we believe is in the best interest of the district. Individual positions must always be secondary to the interests of the district.
The past year has been a challenge from the perspective of balancing the social, emotional and academic needs of students with the need to ensure the health and safety of all in the extended school family. What could the school district have done better to achieve that balance and what succeeded? What planning is needed to respond more quickly to any future disruptions in the traditional learning environment?
The district has generally done well in terms of balancing the academic, social, and emotional needs of our children through our remote and hybrid options, though there is certainly room for improvement.
Where we could have improved is in advertising many of the programs and activities that we have available for enrichment opportunities and that help supplement our social and emotional learning goals.
Another area of improvement, which may be possible this spring, is to help build a sense of community between our remote and hybrid learners. The pandemic has obviously impacted our ability to do that for most of the year, but as things improve with the virus and the weather becomes more favorable, there may be more opportunities for our students to interact with one another.
Kids have been incredibly siloed this year and that has undoubtedly had an impact on them, so finding ways for them to reconnect with other students and form strong social bonds is critical. That is a key part that must be included in all plans for any possible future disruption, but overall, I think we are well prepared to shift from in-person learning to remote should we ever need to do so in the future.
How do you define equity? How has your thinking around the subject of equity evolved and what should District 102 do to address that subject?
For me, the term equity refers to fairness and justice, and it requires an understanding that we all do not start off at the same place. Equity has been a primary focus during my term on the board, and now that we have adopted an equity policy, the next step is to expand our communication efforts on this front.
We recently updated our website to include our policy and posted a copy of our recently released equity brochure, which are great first steps. However, our equity, diversity, and inclusion goals cannot be accomplished using only a top-down model.
The district can increase diversity in its workforce to better reflect the students it serves, maintain a rigorous curriculum, and continue to train our incredible staff on culturally responsive teaching methods, but its ultimate success in this arena lies with obtaining community support.
Quite frankly, unless the community fully understands the issues surrounding equity, and how addressing those issues positively benefits everyone, gains will be nominal. The Committee on Equity and Minority Achievement (CEMA) will play a significant role in advancing the cause of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Through CEMA, community members will have an opportunity to have meaningful discussions regarding these issues and how to best resolve the challenges they pose, and that will help propel us forward in our equity endeavors.
As a school board member you will play a role in budgeting. How will your values inform your approach to budgeting and fiscal planning?
I believe strongly in fiscal responsibility. When I was elected to the board, the community had just approved a referendum to increase our tax limiting rate and I felt a tremendous responsibility to be a good financial steward of the district’s finances.
Over the course of my term, the board has placed the district on strong financial ground. Our budget is balanced despite the pandemic, with net revenue expected to exceed costs this year, our credit rating is strong once again, and our fund balance is back to 24%, just 1% off our target goal. It is intent to continue increasing the fund balance over the next term and continue making fiscally responsible decisions.
What are the biggest challenges facing District 102 and how should the school board address them?
The biggest challenge is how and when to safely get back to as close to a normal learning environment as possible. In order to do that, we must confront two harsh realities. The first is that this pandemic is not going away anytime soon, and the second is that school will look different than what we are normally accustomed to for a while longer. This means we need to find a way to implement a full day model in the presence of Covid no later than the fall of 2021, while simultaneously accepting that when we do, it will not look the same as it did in the Fall of 2019.
Secondly, we must understand that everyone has been impacted in some way by this pandemic, especially our students. Our district will need to fully assess where our students are at, both academically and emotionally. From there, the district can determine how to set ambitious yet appropriate goals and implement a plan that is responsive to the needs of our students, including offering additional programs over the summer to help address any issues identified.
Finally, equity and closing the achievement gap remain significant challenges, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. As a board, we have started on a clear path towards addressing these issues by formally adopting an equity policy. In the term ahead, a great deal of work will need to be done to continue to address these issues, and it starts by understanding the impacts this pandemic has had on our students and getting them back in the classroom on a full-time basis by the fall.