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Stepping down after 16 years of service
ARLINGTON — Carolyn Erickson has used her ears a lot during her 16 years on the School Board.
She’s listened to constituents’ complaints. She’s listened to former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf give inspirational speeches during various school functions.
She’s also listened to doctors deliver bad news — once, that she had Non-Hodgins lymphoma, and again that she had a brain tumor. She battled both conditions over a three-year span.
“Three weeks after I went into remission, I heard about the brain tumor,” Erickson said. “From 1994 to 1997, I was pretty sick. The Board still made me feel like I was still part of the family.”
Erickson attended her last School Board meeting on Nov. 30, 16 years after being elected as the Arlington School Board’s District No. 3 Director. Because she’s moved across town, she’s not able to retain her position within the Board.
School Board members in Arlington represent specific districts, which are mapped out geographically.
“It’s bittersweet — I won’t be able to hand my niece her diploma,” Erickson said. “That’s one of the best parts of what we do.”
New Board member Ursula Ghirardo will take over Erickson’s position in December.
At the Nov. 23 School Board meeting, Arlington Education Association Union President Eric Grant presented Erickson with flowers and gifts. Two other certified staff members also spoke about Erickson during the public comments portion, said Misti Gilman, Arlington School District spokeswoman.
“Thank you for your sensibility, compassion and generous heart,” Grant said to Erickson.
The School Board member then received a standing ovation from audience members, Gilman said.
Since taking over in 1993, Erickson’s seen several changes within the district that were ultimately decided by the Board.
Most of the big changes, Erickson said, came in the form of new construction.
School officials were able to pass a $54 million bond measure in March 2000 to finance the construction of a new high school. Erickson said being able to pass that bond, which required a supermajority of 60 percent to pass, helped the district at the time deal with increasing enrollment.
“That was huge,” Erickson said about the bond. “But with it came more staff, which depletes the budget. Our fund balance became depleted at the same time people began moving when they lost their jobs.”
As residents sought jobs in other areas, the school district’s enrollment began to drop, which resulted in less state funding.
That meant the School Board was tasked with some tough decisions, Erickson said.
Erickson said she, as well as other School Board members, had a number of conversations with Superintendent Kristine McDuffy about how the district would combat declining revenues during the 2008-09 school year.
“During union discussions, I once was on the phone from 9:45 (p.m.) until 3 a.m.,” Erickson said. “Last year was my toughest year in 16 years.”
The School Board eventually cut 24 staff positions within the district. Many of them, however, have been brought back as enrollment creeps back up, Erickson said.
Not all of Erickson’s School Board career has been as trying.
She said she is proud of the time she’s spent serving as the Board’s legislative representative. The position, which she’s held since she was elected to the Board, gave her a chance to meet with state elected officials and discuss Arlington School District issues with them.
Erickson said during her time as the representative, she pushed for legislators to relax the state’s super-majority law so that school districts would only need a simple majority to pass school levies.
“If I saw (former Governor) Gary Locke today, he’d probably remember me because of that,” Erickson said.
Erickson said she’s also happy that the Board has brought on two student Board members that sit in and give input during its bi-monthly meetings.
“That started about 10 years ago,” Erickson said. “I love those kids. It’s a heck of an opportunity for them and they get to go to conferences with us.”
During Erickson’s tenure, the school district has also brought in a curriculum director — now called the director of teaching and learning — to oversee the district’s educational programs.
Erickson said that having the Board approve the new administrator meant a lot to her since the school district’s curriculum was one of the main reasons she had first run for her position on the Board in the early 1990s.
“People said that instead of complaining that I should do something about it,” Erickson said. “The opportunity presented itself.”
With all the ups and downs Erickson has gone through during her School Board career, she said she is most proud of meeting Erin Gruwell, whose book “Freedom Writers Diary” chronicles a group of 150 at-risk students who changed their perspective on life.
Erickson said she met Gruwell in November 2004. Shortly after, Erickson called administrators at Weston High School in Arlington about an idea.
“We wanted to take kids to a showing of her movie,” Erickson said.
Gruwell’s book had inspired a movie adaptation, and Erickson wanted the school’s students to see it. So the Board member walked down Olympic Avenue in downtown Arlington soliciting money to pay for transporting the students from Weston and the Arlington High School Freshmen Academy.
“A lot of kids were not well-thought of,” Erickson said. “They didn’t know that the community cared for them.”
Maybe now the students take a cue from Erickson and listen.