For two years Merrly Burpoe worked to persuade the school system to establish high school lacrosse programs, but met stiff resistance. Her effort were stymied by school board members and school staff who questioned whether there was enough interest in the county for a new sport and who were concerned it would cost too much.
So Burpoe approached new board member Elaine S. Furlow about the project and convinced her to carry the measure. Though Furlow had never seen a lacrosse game and “didn’t know anything about it,” she spent hours meeting with parents and compiling data in order to draft a proposal that would pass.
“Although lacrosse wasn’t something she was deeply familiar with, she understood it would be a good opportunity for students,” said Burpoe, whose son would go on to play lacrosse in college. “She is very committed to kids in Arlington having as many after-school activities as they can.”
After months of arduous work, Furlow successfully cajoled her fellow board members into supporting the creation of varsity lacrosse in Arlington high schools.
“If we hadn’t had a champion like Elaine, I don’t think we would have stood a chance,” Burpoe said. “It was a tough fight.”
This week the champion bowed out. After eight years on the school board, Furlow presided over her final meeting last Thursday. In February Furlow announced she would not seek a third term, and will be replaced next month by Ed Fendley, who won a spirited three-way race.
“For a decade I have had a foot in two worlds- the professional and the schools,” said Furlow, who currently works as a communications director for a financial services trade association but has had stints as a book editor, Web site producer and press secretary. “It’s time to shift back to the career.”
Throughout her tenure on the board, Furlow has garnered a reputation as a tough questioner, energetic policy maker and someone who fights passionately for her convictions. She combines the meticulous nature of an investigative reporter with the tenacity of a fighter.
“Consistently throughout her career, [Furlow] has fought for kids- for disadvantaged kids, for highly motivated kids and for the kids in the middle,” Mark Dorfman said during the school board meeting on Dec. 15.
FURLOW REGARDS the school board as a place to make decisions, not just to generate new ideas, Dorfman said. She led the effort to get more Arlington students to attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and has worked to provide more money for classes for at-risk four year olds.
Furlow has long been a advocate of the IB program at Washington and Lee and has said that one of her main reasons for running for a seat was to encourage students to enroll in more rigorous classes.
“Her passion for educating kids as individuals has been her hallmark,” said school board member Mary Hynes. “Elaine has the deep desire to challenge students to stretch and be the most they can be.”
Furlow was instrumental in pushing the school board to move back the high school start time. While some board members were skeptical of the costs involved, Furlow continued to work with the school staff on the details of the plan and helped sway others to the benefits of a later starting time, Hynes said.
Fellow school Board member Libby Garvey said she will miss Furlow’s writing ability, sense of humor and, above all, her foresight into the potential consequences of the board’s actions.
“She is very detail-oriented and works incredibly hard,” Garvey said. “Of all the board members, she really looks ahead at the effects of what we’re doing.”
School Board Chairman David Foster noted Furlow’s “energy and persistence.” This was best demonstrated during her two campaigns, when she walked the entire length of Arlington, along Glebe Road, in order to meet constituents.
Furlow is known for not backing down when she fervently believes in a cause, as was the case with the high school start time and lacrosse issues. “She’s not been bashful to approach topics in a different way,” said board member Frank Wilson.
THE DAUGHTER OF a Baptist preacher, Furlow spent her youth moving around Texas. After graduating from Baylor University, she received a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri, where she met her husband Robert.
Furlow worked in New York for a time and then moved down to Atlanta, where she was a book editor. She moved to Washington, settling in Arlington in 1978, to work in the Carter White House and later as a press secretary for a Georgia Congressman.
After her two boys, born in 1981 and 1983, began attending Arlington public schools, Furlow began to get involved in the system. She served as president of the Ashlawn Elementary School PTA and from 1993 to 1995 was president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.
“To me, public education is part of the backbone of what makes this county work,” Furlow said. “I wanted to make things better and thought this was a way to make a difference.”
Though Furlow found her work for the PTA satisfying, she was interested in being a policy maker or, as she puts it, “one of the five people who get to raise their hands and vote.”
She lost a tight election in 1996 but was victorious the next year, and began serving on the board in January 1998.
Furlow is looking forward to devoting more time to her career and is planning a round-the-world trip, with stops in Istanbul, Vietnam, New Zealand and South American. “That was fun to think about during board meetings,” she said, while laughing.
She added she “would consider” running again for office and has been mentioned as a contender for a seat on the county board.
Don’t be surprised if Furlow is trekking down Glebe Road again in the coming years.