There are some unintended benefits that can occur when your dog runs away and you have to run through the neighborhood to catch him, especially if you’re running for school committee in the upcoming election.
“Talk about a good way to meet constituents,” said Judith “Judy” Cobden, who has announced she is running for the District 2 Warwick School Committee seat currently held by Terri Medeiros. “At least they’ll know I’m a normal person with normal problems.
A Warwick native and 1986 graduate from Pilgrim High School with dual citizenship to England through her father, who was born across the pond, Cobden has lived an interesting life. She has been a standup comedian during her college days in New York City, getting serious enough about it to the point where she asked her parents for a loan to hire an agent to pursue it further.
“The hardest thing you can do is get up in front of hundreds of people and try to get them to laugh,” she said. “So, giving a speech? No problem.”
The comedy career fizzled out when she traveled abroad to England and found out that British humor was a stark contrast to back home, especially when it was being delivered by a young American woman.
She traveled back to Warwick to spend time with her ailing father, who passed away in 1998. Afterwards she moved back to New York, where she worked as a financial investigator at the New York and American Stock Exchange.
Those familiar with Cobden and her story probably know her by the next marquee moment that occurred in her life – as she was among the thousands of terrified individuals who experienced 9/11 as it unfolded from the streets of downtown Manhattan. Cobden has spoken at multiple 9/11 ceremonies and tributes in Warwick in the years since.
Through her experiences and professional work, which most recently includes white collar crime private investigating and pro bono work as an educational advocate for parents, Cobden believes that she can make a lasting and important impact on the school department, which she thinks has lacked certain crucial elements in recent years.
“The first thing I hope to bring is teamwork. We're lacking teamwork,” she said. “We're lacking a lot of transparency. That comes with a lot of communication issues that are happening amongst everyone, from school administration and the school committee, to the public and even the children. We need to change that.”
Cobden has advocated during public comment portions of school committee meetings in the past that the department needs to be more vocal in voicing their concerns and needs to the state legislature, primarily in regards to how Warwick receives funding through the state’s funding formula.
“Why aren't we lobbying to get more money?” she inquired. “I believe nothing can happen if you don't ask. If you don't ask, you're never going to know...We're not trying. I want to bring that aspect to the Warwick School Committee.”
Lobbying for more money, Cobden said, is one part of a bigger picture that curtails a need for better fiscal responsibility. She questioned the ethics of air conditioners being installed at the Gorton administration building, despite her recollection that the school committee didn’t approve that expense. She was also highly critical of the time it took to replace malfunctioning fire alarm systems at Holliman and Norwood Elementary Schools, calling the situation a “debacle.”
“It did happen, and it's not something that can be overseen,” she said. “People do make mistakes, but it's due to a lack of transparency between all people in charge…It [went unreported] long enough that it was wrong. It shouldn't have even been a week.”
Cobden said that, if elected, she would try to repair relations between the public, the school administration and the school committee, which has – to say the least – been strained in recent years during a prolonged contract dispute and disagreements from teachers about the implementation of new educational strategies from administrators.
Distrust is also evident with the Warwick City Council, multiple members of which have been critical of the school’s ability to responsibly spend money. Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis and Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla have, particularly, voiced their distrust of the department in recent meetings regarding an $80 million bond to help repair the district’s schools. Partially out of what they described as being cautious, the Council ultimately halved that request and approved a bond request of $45 million.
“I think there is a huge distrust between everyone, including the students. We need to bring some cohesiveness there. It's not there right now,” Cobden said. “There's animosity between the school administration and the school committee and the city council and it doesn’t need to be like that. If this city as a whole works as a team, we could be the greatest again.”
Cobden’s parents were both schoolteachers. Her mother taught in Warwick her entire career and her father in Providence. She was a three-sport athlete in high school and played on the only statewide girls hockey team in Rhode Island. She would go on to become captain of a traveling hockey team in New York – the only girl on the team. She said such experiences showed her the importance of establishing leadership by example.
“I'm not awesome, I just know how to treat people and deal with people,” she said.
Cobden said it was important to her to become an advocate for parents who feel intimidated to speak up about issues they perceive within the schools.
“Everybody deserves to have a voice,” she said. “The constituents that voted for these individuals don't have a voice.” Cobden said it was problematic that people can only voice their opinions at meetings through public comment after the committee has already voted on all the measures they may want to speak about. “By the time we get there, what is our griping going to do?” she asked.
This advocacy would extend to teachers who feel alienated or disadvantaged by certain school policies being implemented without their input. She pointed to the updating of school technology as a good example of school administration being too forceful with their changes and not considering the different ways certain teachers might be more effective in the classroom.
“The teachers are the heartbeat of our schools and they deserve to be respected and for their ideas to be heard,” she said. “If there's a tool that the administration thinks is out of date and don't need anymore, I don’t believe in just taking it from someone. I think there should be a discussion…Just because it exists doesn't mean it's the best way.”
Cobden will be having her first fundraiser on Wednesday, May 23 at 5 p.m. at the William Shields Jr. Post at 662 West Shore Road in Warwick. She is hopeful that as more people learn of her campaign, the more support she can gather.
“I think I can make our schools better,” she said. “It's going to take time, it's not going to happen overnight, but I think we can do better.”