Cathy Belter is only in her third year as the Springfield District School Board representative, but education, books and students have always played central roles in her life. Not only has she been a librarian for some three decades, but she's also served on both the state and national PTA boards.
And when last year's redistricting shifted several schools from the Sully District into the Springfield District, she became a major player in the local area. All of a sudden, schools such as Union Mill, Greenbriar East and Greenbriar West elementaries, plus Chantilly High, were represented by Belter on the Fairfax County School Board.
But the transition's been a smooth one. And Pam Latt, principal of Centreville High — which was in the Springfield District all along — says the schools in Belter's jurisdiction are in good hands.
"I've known her for years, and she's a wonderful person — straightforward and bright," said Latt. "And she's a board member because she wants to improve things for the students."
Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., Belter, 56, lives in Springfield with her husband Leonard. They have two grown children — Laura, a wife and mother, and Douglas, who works for the Silver Diner Corp.— and a 16-month-old granddaughter. Belter either walks or runs a couple miles, each morning, and she and her family enjoy both snow and waterskiing, as well as tennis. And last summer, they had a great time biking in Austria.
Most of the time, though, Belter is involved with schools, libraries and education. She received a bachelor's degree in English literature and journalism in 1966 from Good Counsel College in White Plains, N.Y. And in 1972, she obtained a master's degree in library and information science from the University of Maryland.
After graduating from college, she worked for an advertising/public relations firm in New York City for a year. She and her husband married in 1967, and he went into the Marine Corps. Then came children and stints at various military bases. Belter worked with Navy Relief at Quantico and did volunteer work for the base library in Cherry Point, N.C.
Working there inspired her to get her library degree, and she then spent a year as a librarian at George Mason University. In 1974, she began working part time for the Fairfax County Public Library system — and she still goes in when she can or when she's asked. A reference librarian, she helps people select books and has been at the Pohick Regional Library for nearly a dozen years.
Belter has also had a distinguished career in the PTA. "I got really involved as a school volunteer when my children went to school," she said. Starting as a member of Hunt Valley Elementary's PTA, she eventually graduated to the county Council of PTAs board, serving from the late 1970s into the '80s.
"I became district director of it in 1980 and became state president in 1985 — which put me on the national PTA Board," she said. "I spent 10 years on it in various positions, but especially as the education chairman and legislative vice-president."
As education chairman, Belter would discuss changes in education and materials, plus the needs of the students. "I'd develop materials for PTAs around the country to use within their schools," she explained. "For example, they'd be on [subjects such as] testing, talking to teens, helping with homework."
As state PTA president, she traveled throughout Virginia; but once she joined the national board, her duties took her to 29 states. She spoke on education and legislation and helped develop parent-involvement manuals for the national PTA.
In her capacity as legislative vice-president, Belter was instrumental in the creation of the national PTA's legislative program. "We did a lot of lobbying," she said. "And we'd meet with Congress and with members of the state Department of Education and discuss funding priorities, such as I.D.E.A. — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act."
The first law regarding I.D.E.A. was written in 1975. "The federal government said it would pay 40 percent of the cost of special education to local school districts," said Belter. "To date, we haven't seen near that — it's usually been less than 10 percent. This is still a priority now because the cost of special education has increased all over the country."
Belter left the national PTA board in 1995, but she still participates in workshops for the state PTA on various topics, such as lobbying for education funding and the importance of getting involved before the General Assembly is in session.
After all the years she'd spent on the PTA boards and working in Fairfax County's schools, parents asked Belter to consider running for the School Board, but she wasn't ready yet. Instead, she continued her work with the library system.
But when parents again asked her to run, 2 1/2 years ago, because of all her experience, Belter agreed and was victorious. And to her surprise, she liked the campaigning: "I actually enjoyed walking around, knocking on doors and meeting people."
Not that being on the School Board is a piece of cake. The biggest challenge, she said, is "trying to balance the budget and having the funding to provide for the needs of all our students. It's a matter of how can we do everything and what do we cut? Everything you look at as a possible cut — like trips to planetariums, for example — you find has a constituency for it."
But Belter loves being on the board. "Getting the opportunity to go into schools and classrooms — and see what's going on — is just terrific," she said. "I'm impressed with the dedication of our teachers; and the parents, for the most part, support the schools."
She also likes working with the county schools' staff and the community, as well as learning about particular educational programs and how effective they've been with the students. And along the way, said Belter, she's discovered that "the majority of parents would like the schools to be on full-day kindergarten schedules."
During her tenure on the School Board, she'd "like to see us make an impact on the state to get the funding we need to continue our programs and to get the teachers the salaries they need." Given the current economic situation, it'll be a tough task, but she's not giving up.
Before school even began in September, Belter had already met with every principal in every one of her newly acquired Springfield District schools. And she was pleased with what she saw. "They're all committed to their schools and were proud of their staff," she said. "The principals had confidence in their teachers, and that lead to a positive environment in the schools."