Saturday, October 26, 2019

Franklin Candidate Interview: David McNeill

I sat with David McNeill recently to discuss the following questions regarding his candidacy for the Franklin School Committee.

Some of you will recognize the questions as these were collected from the survey we shared in August. While many submitted questions were similar, I tried to select 6 for each Town Council and School Committee candidate that would help to present them to you all, my fellow voters.

As I have shared in prior years, the candidates do get to review the output before it is published but I retain final editing rights. Interviews with candidates are not an exercise I take lightly; it matters greatly to our community to get accurate information from our candidates to enable voters to make an informed decision to run our government.

For the following FM presents the question. DM represents Elise's response.

FM = There are and have been many opportunities to volunteer with community groups in Franklin. Have you taken advantage of any of these? Which ones, and why did you choose that/those?

DM = That's a very good question. Thank you. This year, I've been quite active with the Franklin Democratic Town Committee. It's been great to be a part of such a civic minded group of people that are very concerned with what's going on in our town, our state, and our country. They're putting on a number of great events in the town. For example, just within this past month, there was a great civics education event at THE BLACK BOX. Something like that is excellent because a lot of people don't have an understanding of what goes into the town government and how things work. It's so important to have that civic understanding to know how we can contribute to that process and have our voices heard.

Another event that happened last week that I was actually part of the planning over the past few months was the climate forum. I wasn't able to attend in the end because it was unfortunately at the same time as the candidate forum, but I understand that it was it was a very well attended event. The climate crisis is such an important issue, and it's great to have an understanding of what is happening with climate change, how that impacts us, and to hear from the experts. They also heard from a legislator about legislation at the state level that we can support.

FM = Where do you get your news about Franklin?

DM = Franklin Matters, of course. I also read articles in The Milford Daily News, Country Gazette, Wicked Local, and The Franklin Local Town Pages. There are a lot of really great news sources out there. Even recently when I was reading The Boston Globe, there was an article about Franklin with the PFAS concern, which isn't typically where I go to for local Franklin news. I opened the article because it is aligned with my work on the environmental committee, and I was surprised to be reading about Franklin. You can never know where Franklin's going to pop up, and there it was. I think it's important to get a broad, sweeping view of what's going on in the town.

FM = The possibility of a change in school start times was a recent controversial topic taken up by the School Committee. Where do you stand on the issue of school start times in Franklin and what actions do you plan to take around this issue during the next term of the School Committee?

DM = First, I'd like to say I think it's very important to ask questions in regard to improving and addressing the mental health and developmental needs of our students. We need to ask those questions to try to understand the mental health trends that are happening in the student population. That's how we can help them improve as students, provide for their development as people, and also allow them to grow and learn in the most conducive manner. Then it’s important to talk with Dr. Ahern and see what feedback she's getting from the school administrations, teachers, as well as parents and students. I think asking questions with the intention of how we can improve students’ mental health and developmental needs is never a mistake. That's why I think it was a good idea to explore the start time change because I believe it was with that good intention.

Of course, it's also very important to get the feedback of the community and have that inform the decision as well. I think that's exactly what has happened with Dr. Ahern’s recent announcement that the school start time discussion is going to be on ‘pause’. They were getting that feedback that the community wasn't ready, and that's OK. I don't think it was wrong to ask the question about school start times in the first place, and if there's action on this issue at the state level, or if there's action later on down the road, I think we'll be better off for having had the discussion now. I think it was a good idea to put it on pause for now as we're going to be facing other big issues, such as the budget shortfall and the Davis Thayer study.

That’s why I think that it is excellent that these questions are being asked for the “Portrait of A Graduate”. How can we improve the experience of students coming up through the system, and what is important to keep in mind in the modern day? What are the most important life skills for them to have? How can we have well-developed, well-rounded people? When the mental health, wellness, and developmental needs of students are being met; not only are they able to learn better, but they're also so much better prepared and equipped to graduate, go out into the world, and become better people and better citizens.

I think the bottom line is, if I were to be elected to the school committee, we always need to be asking questions and seeing things through the lens of how we can we help kids. How can we help the students and do what’s best for them? I don't think we should be afraid of bold ideas that are done with that intention.

FM = While the current School Committee has attempted to reach the community through various forms of communication including coffee chats, email newsletters, attending events such as the farmers market, etc., they have been generally unsuccessful at increasing the engagement with important issues related to the schools. What actions will you take to increase citizen engagement with the School Committee?

DM = Two-way communication is, of course, key as this is a legislative body. We need to have the input of the community, the parents, and all those who are concerned in order to make the best-informed decisions and implement the policies that improve the lives of our students. I know there's been the idea floated of attending sporting events that parents might be attending. I think that's a great idea. We should also ask parents how they would like to be engaged, and what engagement would be most conducive for their schedules to see how they can get more involved.

One way we might be able to do this would be to speak with Dr. Ahern about whether it be possible to send notes home with students that directly ask parents what's the best way to communicate with them and ask for their feedback about what events they would like to attend. It would also be wise to look at high traffic areas that people tend to congregate to engage the community. For example, maybe ask one of the supermarkets if it would be okay to set up a booth or a table at the entrances on a Saturday morning to ask parents, as they're coming into the store, what concerns they have about the schools and what policies would benefit their kids the most. Looking for new ideas and ways of community engagement to get feedback from parents on ways they would like to engage with us is extremely important.

FM = The Town Administrator has suggested that the School Committee investigate the possibility of closing Davis Thayer Elementary as a possible cost-saving mechanism for the town in these tight economic times. Where do you stand on this issue and what actions will you take to support your stance?

DM = I think it is worth looking into. Studying the issue and having the research is key to making sure that an evidence-based decision is made. We have a budget shortfall for the School Committee of about $2.3 million, and, if nothing changes, that's not going to fix itself. I think it's important to look at a number of different avenues for addressing the budget shortfall in the long term to understand what cuts we can afford to make. If it's found that it does make sense for the school to close, and it does close, then there would be money that can instead be directed towards other parts of the school system and prevent cuts in other areas.

I think it's important to ask those questions in terms of what are things we can do that would create long-term cost savings. Of course, closing it would be a very disruptive process for the school system and to the community. That's why I think it's important that we have a study to understand if it would make sense and what the best way would be.

FM = Why should I vote for you?

DM = That's a great question. Thank you for asking. I think my perspective and experience have really prepared me to contribute a lot to the School Committee. I grew up in Franklin and graduated from Franklin High in 2009. I am a product of the school system, and I think it's important to have that perspective at the table. Working at the State House as a research analyst, I deal with legislation and policy on a day to day basis, and part of my job is trying to understand how we can make evidence-based policy decisions that make an improvement in our state.

I have chosen that career path because I really believe in the ability of public policy to make widespread improvements in our communities, in our state, and in people's lives. I think that's always done in the best way when those policies are evidence based. I will take that perspective to the School Committee. That experience is very important because one of the primary functions of the School Committee is setting policy for the school system to try to make sure those policies are in line with the long-term strategic goals that have been laid out.

I believe that better decisions are made when there's diversity of perspectives at the table. I think the perspective of a former graduate is important to have in the decision-making process. I’m also a younger person who has had to navigate looking for a job in a modern economy. I also think that’s important to keep in mind when fashioning policies that are going to affect the next generation.

Lastly, as President Bartlet from the show The West Wing said, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” I would encourage everyone to take part in our democratic process on November 5th, and I would greatly appreciate their votes. Thank you.

Franklin Candidate Interview: David McNeill
Franklin Candidate Interview: David McNeill

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