Former Newhall superintendent Dr. J. Michael McGrath dies at 83

Dr. J. Michael McGrath stands in the playground of the Newhall elementary school that is named after him. Signal File Photo

Newhall School District’s longest-running superintendent, J. Michael McGrath, died Friday morning at the age of 83.

The namesake of McGrath Elementary, McGrath himself was a widely known and respected community leader.

Marc Winger, who succeeded McGrath as superintendent, had a long relationship with McGrath, which started when McGrath hired him as a teacher in Newhall.

One of his earliest memories with McGrath was more than 40 years ago at Peachland Elementary School.

“It was interesting because, at the time, he was very active in the union, and the collective bargaining process law passed early in my teaching career,” Winger said. “And I just remember standing in front of Peachland School with an NBC camera crew, because teachers were picketing.

“There was Mike, talking to the NBC camera crew, and I what we call now ‘photobombed’ his interview and just contested everything he said,” Winger added, laughing. “And Mike just took it with ease.”

While Winger and McGrath were adversarial in terms of negotiations, it never affected their relationship. “When we finished things, and it wasn’t just me, it was the team of teachers, we’d go out for a drink with Mike, because that’s just the kind of guy he was.”

Like Winger, Patti Rasmussen, chair of the city’s Arts Commission, a Newhall parent and former education reporter for The Signal, knew what it was like to go head-to-head with McGrath.

“I was a parent during the multitrack, year-round education system and the busing issues, and I went to school board meetings all the time questioning his decisions,” Rasmussen said. “He never wavered, though, (and) he calmly explained to me, again, why the decision was necessary.”

Dr. J. Michael McGrath stands in front of the Newhall elementary school that is named after him. Signal File Photo

Still, Rasmussen considered McGrath a great friend, who taught her so much and worked hard to give the district his all.

“When he closed down the kitchens at each of the schools and opened a new, never seen before central kitchen, it became the gold standard for all the school districts in our community,” she said. “But for me and my friend, Kimberle Wooten, and several parents in the school district, it was his help and guidance that helped us begin the process of restoring an old auditorium.”

That old Newhall School Auditorium would eventually be reborn as the Newhall Family Theatre for the Performing Arts, which reopened to the public in 2018 after more than 40 years.

“He worked well with strong women, many who he promoted to principal and administrator positions — his mom taught him well,” Rasmussen added.

In his position as superintendent, McGrath said his biggest challenge was keeping up with the growth of the district.

“When you’re a superintendent, you know you’re affecting thousands of people’s lives with the things that you do, and Mike had a compass about what he needed to do for the community, and he did it — it’s admirable,” Winger said. “You take a lot of heat for what you do (as superintendent), (but) Mike would just let that fall off the shoulders and proceed with what he and the school board thought were the right things.”

McGrath saw the opening of three schools during his tenure, as the district more than doubled from 2,300 students in 1972 to 5,600 in 1997, when he retired after 25 years as superintendent.

“In California, that’s a phenomenal run for a superintendent,” Winger added. “Very few people do that, but Mike was one of them.”

In 2003, the Newhall School District celebrated the opening of Dr. J. Michael McGrath Elementary School.

“I was always opposed to naming schools after people, so I was very surprised when they told me the news, but it was a nice thing to do,” McGrath said in a previous Signal interview. “It’s a nice school and it has the best view in the entire valley.”

English-language learners represent 62% of the school’s population, while 83% are considered part of the socio-economically disadvantaged population who receive a free or reduced-price lunch, according to the school’s website, which is exactly what McGrath wanted in a school with his name.

“I love that he wanted the new school that would teach the most needy in the district named after him,” Rasmussen added, “that’s the kind of guy he was.”

“Santa Clarita has lost someone who contributed a lot to our quality of life,” Winger added.

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