Profile of the Natick 2022 candidate: Julie McDonough, school committee

NATICK, MA — Natick voters in 2022 will have a major choice to make in the school committee race.

There are three seats up for grabs this spring, and the three incumbents holding those seats – Cathi Collins, Henry Haugland and Julie McDonough – are all seeking re-election. There are also two challengers in the mix: Kathleen Flathers and Elise Gorseth.

To help voters get to know each candidate, Natick Patch sent all five a questionnaire to probe their thoughts on school issues. Here’s what McDonough had to say:

Last name:Julie McDonough
Age: 48
Occupation: Communication director
Links with Natick schools: Parent of three Natick public school students (9th, 8th and 6th grade), resident of Natick since 2006.
Experience as elected official: Member of the school committee 2015 to today. President of the school committee from 2019 to 2022. Member of the municipal assembly from 2012 to 2022.

What is the biggest problem facing public schools in Natick and what would you do about it?

The biggest problem facing the public schools in Natick is the biggest problem facing the city of Natick and that is the structural budget deficit. Without adequate funding, we cannot meet the needs of our students and we cannot improve the services we provide to students and families. This deficit also prevents us from paying our teachers and staff on par with other districts like ours. For several years, elected municipal officials have been documenting this structural budget deficit. Since the operational waiver in 2008, we have built on new growth, savings from previous years and higher than expected revenues. And frankly, we haven’t invested in the things we’d like to expand our parks and trails, pave our roads, and provide adequate staff to take care of all of our city’s resources. On the school side, we have not been able to add resources and services that we have identified as real needs in this district, such as certified librarians in our elementary schools, a kindergarten orchestra program to grade 12 and a robust tech theater, all things our surrounding neighborhoods already have. Although we have made progress, our teacher compensation for our most experienced teachers continues to be lower than that of our neighboring districts. We must tackle the structural deficit in order to improve the programs and services we offer to our students, our families and the entire Natick community.

Natick voted to close Johnson Elementary last year. If you voted for this closure, can you explain why? If you weren’t a member of the committee, how would you have voted and why?

I was on the committee and voted to shut down Johnson. It was an extremely difficult decision because the school is deeply embedded in the fabric of the community and the families have a deep connection to the school. Johnson School, like all of our elementary schools, has been studied many times over the past 25 years. Last year, the district established an advisory group to re-examine enrollment and space. After reviewing these studies and reports from the mid-1990s, considering the investment needed in the facility, looking at the city’s financial situation, and considering other current elementary schools in the district, it became clear to me that Johnson should shut down. It required too much investment, had very little flexibility in its current location, and was very different in size from our other schools, which impacted the distribution of services. However, it was important to me to hear the concerns of the Johnson families as I weighed this decision and felt strongly that community forums needed to take place. Feedback from families helped me ask additional questions and ensure I had those answers before making a decision. I am confident that the concerns expressed by families about the closure will be taken into account during this transition and as one of the two School Committee members of the Transition Advisory Group, I will continue to listen and respond to family concerns.

What are your thoughts on DESE lifting the statewide mask mandate? Do you think it was too early, or maybe too late?

As I navigated this pandemic as School Committee Chair, I relied on the advice of local, state, and public health authorities to make decisions about health and safety protocols in our school buildings. We were fortunate as a school committee that our superintendent had a strong working relationship with the director of Natick’s public health department, so we were guided in our decision-making by public health experts. I say this because I believe DESE made the decision to lift the mandate based on the advice of its public health experts. The timing was difficult as it was the first day back from February vacation and this reasonably caused anxiety for some families. The Natick Board of Health then lifted the mandate after reviewing a week of COVID data. I am glad that our schools are now mask optional so that families who want their students to wear masks can do so and families who want their students to take off their masks can do so as well. The District is committed to supporting all choices without judgment and that is how it should be. Based on advice from local, state and federal public health authorities, it seems like the time has come to provide options for families.

If you could snap your fingers and fix or change one thing in the school system, what would it be?

If I could snap my fingers and fix one thing, it would be teacher pay. At Natick, we run an extraordinarily lean operation. This means that we ask our teachers and staff to constantly take on responsibilities outside the classroom. It is these responsibilities outside of the classroom that allow our district to function as a cohesive unit, so that no matter where your student goes to school, they receive the same education and the same services. Yet we continue to pay our experienced teachers well below the average salaries of other districts. We need to solve this problem now. Over the past two years, teachers have reinvented the way they do business in ways we couldn’t imagine. Some left because the stress was just too much. But others stayed and served our children in meaningful and incredibly creative ways. Now more than ever, we need to keep our most experienced teachers here at Natick and we need to pay them salaries that are competitive and reflect what they are worth to our students and our families. I know this community supports our teachers. I think it’s imperative that we make Natick an attractive neighborhood to come and stay in so that we have the best teachers guiding and teaching our children.