When Priya Lakireddy and her family moved to the United States from India in 1997, they arrived with just a few suitcases. The 19-year-old girl from Hyderabad went straight to work providing for her family.
It’s been a long time since she first arrived on the East Coast, but Lakireddy hasn’t wasted any time. She earned a bachelor’s from the University of Missouri, and a master’s in education at Fresno State. Together with her husband, local cardiologist Dr. Vikram Lakireddy, she has lived in Merced for 12 years now and is involved in a number of community groups.
And now she’s running for an open seat on the Merced City School District Board of Education this November, buoyed by an interest in public education that began as a consequence of culture shock from moving to America.
“The one thing that really struck me was that education was free,” she said. “Public education was free and it just blows my mind even to this day that everybody has an opportunity to go to a public school regardless of what your background is. That’s the most amazing thing to me.”
Lakireddy is running unopposed for the Area 1 seat being vacated by Shane Smith. It encompasses a huge swathe of northeastern Merced, including the UC Merced campus where she currently works as staff advisor to the University of California Board of Regents. She also helps oversee operations at the Small Business Development Center, which helps connect business owners in Merced and Mariposa counties with a number of services and tools to grow their businesses.
Her involvement with the school district began when it was time to find schools for her three children. She took the time to get to know the staff at local schools and was inspired by the warm and familial atmosphere they had created.
“I went to my first school board meeting and it was amazing to see that you could, as a parent, actually ask questions and question things that are happening in the school district. All of that was so new to me,” she said. “The sense of community is really important to me. The sense of belonging is important to me.”
She spent a lot of time during the pandemic following the ins and outs of school governance, listening in on Zoom meetings and trying to understand where and how the millions of dollars that flow through the local education system are used. She said she’s concerned about the academic performance in the district. State data show that a number of local schools are below the statewide average in reading and math.
“This is back to basics for me. That’s what I’m really going to focus on. Reading, writing, and arithmetic for our children,” she said. “For teachers – a lot has happened during COVID and we’re still all trying to come out of it. So the well-being of teachers and staff, what does that mean? Are we making sure our class sizes are optimal? Do we need to have aids in the classroom? Do our teachers and our schools have access to professional development? And is that professional development really helping or how could we modify and make it better?”
Another of her goals is to increase community participation in school governance. Back when she first got involved in local education, she was struck by how few parents attended board meetings and knew what was going on. She attributes some of that to the ethnic diversity in the county, and the fact that non-English speakers – which included herself at one point – might not have the information in front of them.
“I’m doing this to go there and learn,” Lakireddy said. “What I’m not going to do is go there and say ‘This is what I think we should do first.’ I’m going to listen to all the constituents, teachers, staff, administrators, and students. I really believe that students are an integral part of understanding if we’re doing a good job or not.”
“We should be asking them. We should be preparing them to ask questions in the future too. So I would invite student leaders, staff leaders, teacher leaders to become part of the process of making our school district the best school district in the county.”