The Town of Natick depends on the active participation of its citizens in governance of the Town. Natick voters on Tuesday, March 29 will cast ballots for candidates running for School Committee, a contested race.
The Natick School Committee is an elected town-wide board. Among other things, it approves Natick’s school budget, appoints the Superintendent, and establishes educational goals and policies for Natick’s schools as a whole.
There are five candidates running for three open 3-year seats on the School Committee. In ballot order, they are Cathi Collins, Henry Haugland, Julie McDonough, Kathleen Flathers, and Elise Gorseth.
Natick Report invited the candidates to answer a few questions about their qualifications and priorities for the Town of Natick. Below is Cathi Collins’ Q&A. We will run one School Committee candidate interview per day, then switch over to the Select Board interviews.
Natick Report: Please introduce yourself to Natick Report’s readers.
Cathi Collins: My name is Cathi Collins and I am the current Vice Chair of the Natick School Committee. I’ve lived in Massachusetts for my entire life except for the two years after college when I lived and worked in Connecticut. My background and experience are in finance (Internal Bank Audit Manager) and marketing (instructor of upper-level undergraduate and graduate electives at Boston University, Suffolk and Bentley).
We moved to Natick in 1999 for its strong commitment to education, the wide array of Town services and its wonderful sense of community involvement and support, which was obvious the first time we visited. I currently share my home with my brother and Cooper, our 8-year-old Vizsla.
An elected member of Town Meeting from Precinct 9 for more than 15 years, I served on the Finance Committee (aka FinCom) for the maximum 12 years, including as Vice-Chair from 2017 – 2019, and as Chair of the Education and Learning Subcommittee for 11 of my 12 years. I have also served on multiple Town Meeting committees including the Town Meeting Practices and Rules, the Land Area/Make-Up, and the Conservation Study Committees.
I was elected to the Natick School Committee in March 2019, shortly after leaving FinCom. In addition to the normal committee work, I’ve gained valuable experience as the School Committee Vice Chair, as a member of negotiating teams, and as a member of the Policy Review subcommittee, among other assignments.
Given that two-thirds of my first term coincided with the worst public health emergency in a century, the School Committee accomplished a great deal, including bringing students back to school as safely as possible, focusing on our kids’ social-emotional health during this turbulent time, serving as a model to other districts for remote and hybrid education, and overseeing the construction of a new state-of-the-art Kennedy Middle School, which opened on-time and came in under-budget.
NR: If elected, what do you hope to accomplish during your 3-year term on School Committee?
Cathi Collins: While we will continue to contend with COVID-19, and will take important lessons from it, my goals for the next three years, which fall squarely within the School Committee’s limited purview, include:
- Continuous responsible financial stewardship to ensure the Natick Public Schools have the resources necessary to address the needs of all students while simultaneously controlling the rate at which the NPS budget grows. This includes overseeing the closing of the Johnson Elementary School while ensuring a smooth and supportive transition of all students.
- Defining annual and 5-year strategic and educational goals and policies to substantively improve student outcomes at all levels and demonstrate our responsibility and commitment to students, faculty, staff and families.
- Negotiating competitive labor contracts with each NPS collective bargaining unit which recognize the vital role our employees play in the success of NPS’ students and encourage experienced faculty to remain with the district.
- Ensuring equitable access to opportunity for all students, faculty and staff of Natick Public Schools so every individual is seen, valued, and secure.
- Identifying and providing necessary academic and social-emotional recovery resources for each student experiencing setbacks due to COVID-19.
- Approving an evidence-based structured literacy curriculum for teaching foundational literacy skills.
NR: As we go into our third calendar year of the pandemic, mental health issues are at the forefront of educators’ minds. How best can the school system support students’ mental health?
Cathi Collins: Goal #3 in the School Committee’s 5-year strategic plan focuses on developing a social-emotional learning and healthy living framework for student learning and parent engagement and partnership. And, just as our teachers provide instruction in a variety of ways, the School Committee has supported utilizing a multi-modality approach here. I am pleased that with the support of the Natick School Committee, NPS has added two new guidance counselors and five additional social workers in the last year to directly address students’ emotional needs. It has used grant monies to reduce some class sizes and expand a consistent Response to Intervention (commonly referred to as RTI) program district-wide to provide more one-on-one interaction opportunities which helps students both academically and emotionally. The costs associated with the expansion of intramural and middle school sports programs as well additional clubs to provide supportive enrichment opportunities to students have been included in the FY23 budget. The School Committee also continues to support an expansion of the externally managed “Hey NHS/KMS/WMS” program and other screening tools to identify students who are struggling with mental health issues. The district’s partnership with William James College to provide mental health counseling and referrals to students and families continues. To ensure that this vitally important work is appropriately coordinated as we move forward, a Director of Social Emotional Learning and Equity position will be funded by grant monies for the first year.
NR: What is the best way to manage budget shortfalls in the system and still keep current service levels?
Cathi Collins: As noted above, I have been intimately involved with the Natick Public Schools’ budget since 2005 so I’ve been on both sides of many budget gaps. In that time, I’ve seen “shortfalls” ranging from $0 to approximately $6 million. Often new staffing, programs or capital investments have been deferred and this is a reasonable short-term approach, but this approach does not account for the effects of inflation or permit the addition of new, often legally mandated, programs and services. In 2008, the Town’s chronic shortfall was “managed” by passing an operational override that was intended to address the gap for 2-5 years – that was 14 years ago. These represent the extremes as I see them of managing a budget shortfall while still providing current service levels.
In my experience, the most effective way to manage any budget in the face of revenue gaps is through communication, collaboration, trust and the development of respectful relationships with partners prior to any crisis. It was this respect and trust and the existence of robust relationships with Dr. Nolin and the Natick School Committee that all of our unions voted to defer their cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) as we struggled to close the multi-million dollar FY21 budget gap created by concerns about expected revenue shortfalls when COVID-19 hit. Union membership explicitly deferred its COLAs to preserve the then-current staffing and service levels for the long-term good of our students and health of the district. They trusted that if revenues came in higher than projected, the School Committee would seek to fund the deferred COLA. That trust was well placed. I have witnessed a similar respectful relationship between Natick’s Town Administrator, Jamie Errickson, and Dr. Nolin.
I am, however, keenly aware that communication, collaboration, trust and respectful relationships may be insufficient to bridge every budget gap on their own but I know, too, that without this as a foundation, the chances that current service levels can be preserved in the face of even a small gap are unlikely.
NR: Is there anything else you’d like to say that the above questions did not cover?
Cathi Collins: I am proud of what we (the Natick School Committee and NPS) accomplished over the last three years, despite facing the most challenging circumstances imaginable. I am committed to continuing this important work as I believe there is more that can and should be done to further improve our students’ outcomes. Together with my Natick School Committee colleagues, District Administration, our Town partners and community stakeholders, I vow to continue our hard but necessary work to ensure all Natick students receive a high-quality education and graduate as informed, thoughtful, and productive citizens. For more information, please visit my website at www.cathicollinsfornatick.org. I urge you to vote on March 29th, and I respectfully ask for one of your three votes for School Committee.
NR: How should voters reach you if they want more information?
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