January 28, 2016: Belmont: A town full of ‘Laurie Grahams’

Belmont Citizen-Herald: January 28, 2016

There was sadness on the Belmont School Committee last week, as long-time member Laurie Graham attended her last meeting before her retirement from elected public office. In her eight years of service, three as Chair of the School Committee, Graham left her imprint not only on the public schools, but on the community as a whole.

I hope we all appreciate the amount of her inner-being that Graham has given to the Belmont community throughout the past decade. Graham helped lead the School Committee through some particularly tough times. The turn-over in school superintendents is never easy, yet Belmont had one superintendent who left earlier than he had committed to; replaced by an “interim” superintendent (who graciously agreed to stay an extra year to benefit the town); before landing Superintendent John Phelan who now leads our district.

Graham helped usher the town through the construction of a new elementary school, with young kids housed in temporary modules and sharing space at the high school; this, too, is never an easy task, for the kids, the parents, the teachers or the administrators.

Labor negotiations in Belmont always seem to be contentious, but have been even more difficult in an era of severely constrained financial resources. How do you address underpaid teachers when there is simply no more money in the budget?

The school committee was placed in the awkward situation where members had to insist on preserving already inadequate girls’ athletic fields from being used for non-school facility building construction, when no replacement land was promised or anywhere available.

All the while, spiraling enrollment was creating space problems; the high school physical plant continued to deteriorate; and the budget was increasingly squeezed by expenditures that were mandated by, but not financially supported by, state and federal law. Graham certainly didn’t devote eight years of her life to the schools because it was “fun.”

Despite the challenges, Graham’s good humor, good will, and good sense ensured that progress continued to be made. Clearly, challenges still remain. But the town is better off today because of her service.

The thing that is so special about Laurie Graham is that she isn’t special. She doesn’t have umpteen advanced degrees in education; she didn’t bring decades of professional experience to bear on how to manage school systems. Instead, she has succeeded because she’s been willing to step into the fray; she’s been willing to do the unheralded, often unappreciated, dirty work to understand issues and how they affect our community; and she’s been willing to suspend her own personal predispositions so she can hear the full story and find a basis for reasonable decisionmaking.

In so doing, Graham has made perhaps her greatest contribution to Belmont. She has demonstrated that we all have the capacity to make contributions to the broader community. The fact is that Belmont is full of “Laurie Grahams.” We as a community need to give people permission to step into the public arena, make their contributions, and exercise their best judgment, whether they be young or old; homeowner or renter; with kids in the schools or not; long-time resident or recent arrival.

I hope when folks next see Laurie Graham, whether on the street, or at the market, or at the post office, you take a moment to stop her and say “thank you.” However, even as we express our gratitude to Graham for her years of service, we should also look forward to embracing, as well as providing encouragement and support to, the next individual who will step forward to make their own unique contributions to helping our schools, our town, and our community.

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