Julie Swinehart

District 204 School Board Candidate

Age: 45


Why are you running to be on the school board? What motivates you and what experience and perspectives would you bring to the job? How would those be valuable as an elected official?

I’m running for LT school board because I am passionate about LT and education broadly, and I bring unique, diverse experience, including a strong financial skillset, which I believe will enhance the make-up of the school board. 

I’m motivated to serve people in my community and I will be involved with LT already as I will have at least children at LT for the next four years. I bring different perspectives having served on other volunteer boards, including the La Grange Field Club and The Avery Coonley School’s Board of Trustees.

 I’m a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a member of a community of finance professionals, a member of a community of parents and certainly a member of the D204 community. I’m ready and willing to work hard to offer my unique perspectives as a member of the LT school board, am I am interested to hear other viewpoints and work towards achieving sound solutions.

As a school board member you will be asked to balance what’s best for the district as a whole with what might be in the interest of specific groups. How will you do that? When have you had occasion to do something similar in the past and how did you accomplish that?

A big part of being a school board member is listening to constituents, including students, parents, teachers, the administration and the community broadly. I would work to ensure that communication lines are open and operating among all parties, and I have some specific ideas as to how to accomplish that goal. 

Of course, opinions will differ on a variety of topics, and we have seen that this year on the topic of school re-opening. As a school board member, I am only one person, and our group of seven members will need to reach agreement on issues. I have deep experience in leadership roles building consensus and reaching decisions in groups. 

In my day job as CFO, it is part of my daily effort as I lead my teams, collaborate with the other members of the executive management team and seek approval on various topics from our board of directors. 

When I served on the La Grange Field Club, I had the role of Treasurer for two years and President as one year. In every meeting when I was President, my role was to listen, ensure all views were voiced, and then lead the group to making a decision that most, if not all, supported. I am a confident, experienced leader and feel I would play a key role in decision-making and consensus-building with the LT school board.

The past year has been a challenge from the perspective of balancing the social, emotional and academic needs of students with the need to ensure the health and safety of all in the extended school family. What could the school district have done better to achieve that balance and what succeeded? What planning is needed to respond more quickly to any future disruptions in the traditional learning environment?

First and foremost, LT offered families choices amidst a global pandemic, and for that I commend LT. I believe most, if not all, people agree that students learn best in-person. \

However, families disagree as to what environment is best for their students currently. There are families with medically compromised students who are grateful for the permission for their kids to continue to learn in a fully remote environment, as they must prioritize health and safety as the primary goal. 

There are other families with students who are struggling with depression or feelings of isolation, and those families may prefer to have those students learning in the classroom to address those important social emotional elements. Students whose grades are suffering in the remote environment may also benefit from being in-person. 

I observed LT prioritizing safety, but also listening to parent concerns and responding, for example during September 2020 when the administration listened to feedback during the school board meeting and later that week announced a hybrid learning model to start in October. I think there could have been more frequent two-way communication during the school year to both gather the ever-changing and evolving input from families, and similarly to share with families updates and information from LT.

From where we sit today with many teachers already vaccinated, but with so many students still learning remotely, I believe LT needs to work to continue to permit additional in-person learning time in the current school year for those who desire that model, while continuing to permit fully remote learning for students who prefer that option. 

However, I also firmly believe that time is of the essence and LT should be establishing a task force to address how to fully re-open in August for the next school year. This task force should include teachers, administrators, school nurses, students, local health experts, and community members. 

I serve on the Board of Trustees of The Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, which is a small, private school for children in preschool through 8th grade, and due to early planning, the development of a task force, coupled with benefits of being both small and private, we have been open for five full days per week of in-person learning for this entire school year. I would love to bring some of our lessons learned and successes from that experience to LT to work towards full, in-person learning.

How do you define equity? How has your thinking around the subject of equity evolved and what should District 204 do to address that subject?

To me, equity means ensuring that the same opportunity is available for a group of people, acknowledging that people within the group have different backgrounds and different barriers to achieving success. 

The critical piece is that one cannot presume everyone in a group enters the group having been afforded the same experience or opportunity prior to the group coming together. The group has a shared goal of success, but a uniform approach cannot be applied to achieve the desired outcome.

As an example, let’s say a group of native German speakers and a group of English-only speakers took a chemistry class together, with the desired outcome being that every student in the class, regardless of background, achieved 75% or better, but the instructor only spoke German. 

I think it would be foolish to presume that the English-only speakers would be successful in reaching 75% or better, and if the expectation is that all of those students reach 75% or better, additional supports must be introduced. Perhaps adding a translator alone would do the trick. Or, if the students are motivated to help each other, perhaps a few of the German speakers also know English and would offer to tutor some of the struggling students. 

In my example, offering additional support to the English-only speakers in no way detracts from the education offered to the German speakers. There are ways to achieve success, but it starts with acknowledging that there typically is not a “one size fits all” model. Students need different supports in order to succeed.

Also, equity is rooted in the very basic concept of belonging, and I have always felt that students learn best when they aren’t worried about being viewed as lesser or different by peers or teachers. 

I have ideas as to how to improve both belonging and equity at LT, and I am dedicated to listening to others on the topic to determine what steps we can take to create a better, stronger learning environment. LT has recently made some significant strides, including issuing an equity statement, approving a 1:1 technology initiative and changing some of the historic required reading materials.

As a school board member you will play a role in budgeting. How will your values inform your approach to budgeting and fiscal planning?

I am a CPA and a CFO for a publicly-traded commercial real estate owner and operator of shopping centers. I started my career in public accounting and I currently serve as Assistant Treasurer for The Avery Coonley School Board of Trustees. Also, I previously served as Treasurer and President of the La Grange Field Club. 

I have a tremendous amount of experience with financial planning and budgeting, and with acting in a fiduciary manner. In all of the roles I described, I am acting as a steward of someone else’s capital, whether it be shareholder capital in my day job or membership or tuition dollars in my volunteer roles. 

Similarly, I would commit to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars for the constituents of District 204. The taxpayers fund the vast majority of LT’s operating budget and it is important that the school board work with the administration team to ensure those dollars are spent thoughtfully and in ways that further the success of the school, focusing on student learning objectives. 

As I have experienced both at work and with my volunteer efforts, aging infrastructures as well as technology advances and considerations need attention and investment, too. There is a balance to be sought with all of these components and an annual operating budget is very important, but so is a 5-year capital plan. I’m ready to tackle this part of the role.

What are the biggest challenges facing District 204 and how should the school board address them?

One of the most significant near-term challenges facing LT is being able to safely fully re-open the school for in-person learning. As I addressed this topic in one of my earlier responses, I will secondly note that advancing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives makes my list of the top areas of focus for LT, which I also addressed in a previous response. 

Another key topic for me is technology advancement, and LT has taken a big step a few months back when they announced the 1:1 technology initiative, which also addresses some issues of equity. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the topic of social-emotional health. Even before the pandemic, this topic was at or near the top of my list, but unfortunately the pandemic has introduced stronger pressures, anxiety and negative feelings in many of our students. 

LT has made some solid strides in this area recently, and I am interested to hear feedback on how successful some of the new programming has been, including the four-year P.E. program focusing on social-emotional health that just started this year. 

I would like to see LT temporarily staff up with more social workers as school more fully re-opens so that more eyes can observe student behavior to try to identify and help at-risk students. I think re-entry will pose challenges and should not be underestimated as to how students may be affected by returning to school in a post-pandemic world.