In eight years on the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee, seven on the Citizens’ Budget Oversight Committee, and years on PTAs and coaching soccer, Robert Studdiford taught himself how the West Contra Costa County Unified School District system works.
Pretty remarkable for a high school dropout – which is one reason the school board candidate says he’s qualified for the job.
Studdiford is a Berkeley-tinted version of a Horatio Alger story. At 17 he dropped out, moved out and began working at a theater company in New York. For two years he stage-managed for the Syracuse Ballet and with his time off began hitchhiking across the country.
He joined a communal house and watched as the crack wars of the ’80s erupted in his neighborhood. He sold flowers for seven years, traveled the world for one, and then came back and became an electrician.
Until one day he says, “My boss of seven years lit me up,” — that is made him really angry — “and I almost killed him. I ran around a job site with a big old wrench.”
He quit the next day.
Studdiford’s wife, Lauren, bought a bike soon after, but couldn’t carry a water bottle, pump and lock while riding — and so began his journey into patenting bicycle fasteners. His company Twofish Unlimited holds five patents now.
“My wife and I are Pisces — she had a problem and I fixed it,” he said matter-of-factly. “And we’re unlimited because no one should limit themselves.”
Studdiford says it was the influence of his friend Amy — the first in the commune to become a parent — that sparked his involvement in West County schools where he would go volunteer, once even constructing a to-scale version of the solar system complete with a 20-foot-tall planet.
“When my oldest son Adrian got ready to enter kindergarten,” Studdiford said, “Amy took me aside and she said, ‘OK Robert you’re going to get on PTA. Now you’re to join site council and you’re going to coach sports. Because these are the people you’re going to see for the rest of your child’s education.’”
He says she was absolutely right.
From there he became vice president of the PTA, which snowballed into sitting on the redistricting committee for Lovonya Dejean Middle School.
“That really opened my eyes to the diversity in the district,” he said. “How big the district was and what are the social issues that happen from neighborhood to neighborhood.”
For Studdiford, being an advocate for children meant then and means now a need to understand the money.
“What Amy really helped me understand early in the process was if I knew and understood where the flow of money went I would be able to advocate in the best form for my own children’s education and by doing that I would be able to strengthen the whole process,” he said.
Studdiford has sat on the committee that oversees $1.27 billion in bond dollars and the construction of 56 buildings in the district, but he first got involved when his son’s elementary school, Castro, came up for renovation within the bond program.
It’s his experience — the 12 years he says he spent learning how to listen and ask questions — that makes him a good candidate to sit on the school board, he said.
If elected, he says he would like to use the relationships he has accumulated to create better dialogue between the district and bargaining units such as the teacher’s unions. He would also search for more financial stability in the district, which could mean creating new relationships through business or lobbying at state level. And he wants to bring arts back into the schools.
Studdiford says choosing to run, to open himself up for public scrutiny, was a serious decision.
“People say, ‘Well you know you shouldn’t be running. You’re a high school drop out — what do you know about education?’” he said, words tumbling out after one another, hands pounding on the table.
“I’d like to ask them, ‘What the hell do you know about troubled youth? What makes you understand? Why shouldn’t troubled youth be represented at the board level? Why shouldn’t I represent a child at risk, both educationally, socially?’”
For Studdiford, a man who has taken life’s challenges as they come — who once rode two-and-a-half days in a big rig with a shotgun in his lap during a truckers strike, to which he says — “It was both our lives, so hell I was ready to shoot” — running for this office means more than just sitting on a board with a host of well-educated individuals who make important decisions.
“I literally feel like I have a master’s if not a Ph.D. in West Contra Costa Unified public education,” he said. “I feel like I have a responsibility to my community.”