Q & A with Raaheela Ahmed, District 5 Board of Education Candidate

img_1060This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with PGCPS Board of Education candidates. Raaheela Ahmed is a candidate from District 5 (see district map here). Ms. Ahmed answered questions generated by members of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools. 

Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools does not endorse or oppose any candidate for the Board of Education.

Tell us about your background and why you feel that you would be an effective member of the Board of Education.

My name is Raaheela, and I am a lifelong Prince Georgian and resident of Bowie who is a product of Prince George’s County’s public elementary, middle and high schools. I hold degrees from the University of Maryland in Finance and Economics. I am running for the school board because I feel that my current and fresh perspectives will have a positive impact on the District in improving student success. I believe in the potential of our students and will work hard to ensure that our students are not only college and career ready, but also culturally competent and globally competitive.

My professional experience as a federal financial consultant for the Department of Homeland Security, boardroom experience on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, and volunteer work focused on enhancing the lives and education of our county’s students (America Reads*America Counts, Health Leads, Moneythink Maryland, and Court Appointed Special Advocate) enhance my effectiveness as your representative on the board. This is my second bid for the Prince George’s County Board of Education. In 2012, I came 3% shy of winning the general election after winning the primary election with the top number of votes. Over the course of my School Board races, I’ve canvassed over 10,000 homes, engaging parents, teachers, students and stakeholders in dialogue about our school system and ways to improve it. I’ve recently gained the endorsement of our teachers via the Prince George’s County Educators Association. Together we can ensure a bright future for our children and our communities!

What are two or three special challenges that you see in your school board district, and how would you work with the community to address them?

Community Engagement:

I believe in the statement: It takes a village to raise a child. This proverb highlights the need for collaborative effort in making change….the necessity of not one, but several caring individuals and institutions in human growth and development. K-12 education systems are grounds for this kind of development. Whether we like it or not, our schools are responsible for teaching hard subjects like math and science as well as intangible skills like work ethic and acceptable societal behaviors. It takes effort from all stakeholders in building our schools and our community. That is why efforts to encourage parental involvement in schools and develop partnerships with local universities and businesses are important to the progress of our schools and students. To encourage community engagement, I’d like to spearhead the establishment of active formal parent-teacher organizations in all schools, corporate partnerships to provide internship and other academic opportunities for our students, and personally engaging in community outreach as I have been doing on the campaign trail.

Transparency and Accountability:

Prince George’s County has a history of corrupt elected figureheads, mismanagement of money and general public distrust. In order to overcome these issues and thrive as a community, both transparency and accountability must be prioritized. I believe fiscal transparency is needed with the school budget so that individuals know not only how their taxpayer dollars are being spent, but whether that spending has a good return on investment given demographic metrics (test scores, graduation rates, etc.) I support having a thorough evaluation of our academic programs. Understanding what works and what doesn’t will allow PGCPS to align resources and funding efficiently and increase academic excellence. Additionally, I’d like to see more advanced technology use in sharing detailed information, similar to the UNC Data Dashboard.

School Safety:

School safety is so important to maintain a conducive environment for growth and learning. As a student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, I personally faced a situation where my personal sense of safety was threatened in an act of crime (theft) at the school. In the end, I was able to hold the individual responsible in court. I believe that school safety needs to be tackled in two ways: reactively and proactively. In the reactive sense, schools must hold the appropriate individuals responsible for crimes and injustices that are committed. Letting generally unacceptable behavior slide, under-reporting or discouraging reporting to maintain better metrics should not be tolerated. In the proactive sense, security measures should be in place for each school, depending on the different needs for different schools. Products like Text-A-Tip (an anonymous crime reporting system) could be adapted in our schools to ensure safety as well. I would support programs like this to improve the safety in our schools, in addition to policy changes and new data analysis surrounding school safety.

The school system has recently been under fire for several alleged incidents of abuse and neglect. How will you work to increase a sense of respect and security, for children and their families, in our school system?

There is nothing more important than keeping our children safe. The recent Head Start fiasco, among other incidents, is proof that policy changes are not enough to prevent such incidents from occurring. Policy can only take effect when it is practiced and enforced. The school system needs better oversight, plain and simple. What needs to happen is proper reporting of troubling incidents and proper channeling up the chain to management for them to be addressed. When individuals do not report out of fear or pressure, our students are the ones to lose.  I will work to increase a sense of respect and authority for children and their families by prioritizing school safety, as outlined in the question above.

What should be done about the massive backlog of building maintenance, renovation, and school construction? As a board member, what impact could you have on the school system’s capital programs?

As a School Board candidate, I’ve attended PTA meetings at schools that have faced renovation issues like Tulip Grove Elementary. I’ve met and heard concerns from parents and community members about the appalling delays in the construction process. As a board member, I would work to activate the experts in our community to advise on improving our processes. I would work to keep our system employees accountable to the timelines that are set and encourage them to engage the community in the change process.

Ultimately, I believe our system can do more to address capital needs. Dozens of Prince George’s County Public Schools are crumbling due to aging and insufficient upkeep. The renovation demand is way higher than the county’s ability to provide, given the capital budget. I am in support of developing Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and soliciting private investments to improve the structure of our schools. This methodology is being used widely across the higher education sector. I’ve had experience in understanding them through my term on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, and would love to see implementation on the K-12 level.

How will you address the transportation issues within the school system? For example, some school buses have been showing up late — or not at all, some bus rides are more than an hour long, and there are reports of students being pulled out of class before the end of the school day in order to catch their bus. 

I believe at its core, this is an issue of resource allocation, managing priorities and empowering our bus drivers. In June, the board passed the county executive’s reconciled budget that cut a proposal to add 25 more bus drivers. This addition would likely have alleviated some transportation issues, but it was not a priority. As a board member, I would make it a priority for the next budget cycle. We cannot overburden our drivers at the expense of our students. As a student in PGCPS, I remember having to wait up to an hour for my bus, or getting on the bus with double the number of students because the driver had to pick up an extra route. These are unacceptable and unsustainable practices. I will advocate for better transportation experiences for our drivers, parents and students.     

What improvements would you like to see in our special education program? Are you in favor of expanding PGCPS’s early intervention efforts?

The biggest improvement I’d like to see in our special education program regards resource management: We need fully equipped special needs departments at all our schools. It shouldn’t be hard to secure Individual Education Programs (IEPs) for our students in need, especially those from low-income families that cannot refute unfavorable findings. In Annapolis, I worked on a bill to shift the burden of proof for contesting IEPs from parents to schools. We need better PGCPS practices for special needs.

What are your thoughts on the way the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program is currently operating? Some of our TAG centers have waiting lists. Should every child who is TAG identified be given the opportunity to attend a TAG center?

As a former TAG student, I benefited greatly from the TAG program. It established roots for my academic success. I was in the pull-out model in elementary school, and later enrolled in honors middle school courses. I never transferred to a TAG center. I think the opportunity for students that are TAG identified to attend a TAG center is valuable. However, I understand that (generally speaking) enrollment in a TAG center is not a student’s only means for a successful academic career. At the end of the day, each student’s experience will be their own, based not only on environment, but also on factors like people and curriculum. As a board member, my goal is to provide positive growth opportunities for students no matter which school they attend.

The demand for language immersion schools and other specialty programs is high. What are your thoughts on expanding language immersion programs and other specialty programs?

Although I was born and raised in Prince George’s County, English was not my first language. I grew up in an ethnic South Asian home, where I learned Urdu before I learned English. I understand the value of being bilingual, and I think learning multiple languages will make our students globally competitive and culturally competent. I applaud families that are embracing diverse education opportunities. I think the crux of the matter is that expanding language immersion and other specialty programs comes at a cost. I’d be wary of supporting expansion efforts if I knew it came as an expense to the basic needs of others students. In the next question of this questionnaire, the topic of equity is brought up. I think being equitable is important to maintain the integrity of our public school system, where we should be advocating for the success of all our students. 

A judge in Connecticut recently ruled that the state must overhaul its educational system with particular attention to equitable funding.  What aspects of that case are relevant to Prince George’s County and what impact could a board member have on funding inequities?

To have a court recognize inequities and order change is a huge step forward in addressing achievement gaps. I am aligned in believing that educational opportunities need to be offered to all students. In Prince George’s County, academic programs such as Advanced Placement (AP) must improve and expand to meet the offerings of top-performing schools. Great teachers must feel supported in providing high-quality education to be retained and so good academic programs can be sustained. Renovating distressed facilities should be a top priority in the capital budget. I think these actions will help build a more equitable PGCPS.

What do you think are the greatest obstacles currently facing the Board of Education? As a board member, how will you contribute to solving those problems and increasing the Board’s effectiveness?

The greatest obstacle facing the Board of Education is building and maintaining the trust of the community. We have a history of corrupt and self-serving politicians in Prince George’s County, including former board members and superintendents. We have schools that many parents feel are not safe for their children. We have a system that is not as transparent, accountable or engaging as it needs to be. All of these are factors in the distrust that surrounds PGCPS.

In 2013, the passing of HB 1107 furthered this situation. This bill was passed in an expedited fashion by the Maryland legislature. County Executive Baker led the force in passing the bill, which severely curtailed the powers of the Board of Education. The Board of Education can now only combat a decision made by the CEO of schools with a 2/3 vote nay (as opposed to a 2/3 vote yea). Many decisions no longer go through the Board for approval, like the hiring of executive officers to the CEO. The CEO and a few board members, like the chair, are appointed by the County Executive. All of these things have virtually eliminated checks and balances with our school system. I believe the board cannot effectively govern the way it is meant to govern.   

Working to improve our school system as a board member under these constraints will be difficult. As a board member, I will work to be a vocal advocate for our community to the CEO and our elected officials. I will contribute my strengths to advance student success (i.e. finance background, boardroom experience, community engagement, etc.) I will lead with transparency, accountability, and integrity. 

Do you have any additional comments?

I believe that the School Board position is an elected position that is built for community activists like me. It is non-partisan and independent of outside interests. In this way, board members can be true, honest representatives of their community and look out for the best interests of students. As a fresh and new pursuant office holder, I am truly independent, never having been supported by the political establishment or pushed and pulled by special interest groups. My focus has been and always will be on students and their success.

Learn more about Raaheela Ahmed here:

We also published a different set of questions and answers in advance of the primary election in April. You may read Ms. Ahmed’s responses to that questionnaire here.

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