Last month the School Board was scheduled to take a routine vote to renew the contracts of the science and computer aides at Nottingham Elementary School, whose salaries are paid for by the school’s PTA. The item was buried among a slew of other grants and appointments on the board’s agenda, and the five members were planning on approving the issue without any discussion.
But to School Board Chair Mary Hynes, the matter was far from trivial. Hynes spoke out against extending the contracts, arguing that PTAs should not be involved in funding the hiring of teachers. Allowing them to do so potentially creates inequalities in the school system, since less affluent PTAs may not be able to afford hiring additional personnel, she said.
"If this is really necessary, then the school system should be paying for the aides in every school in the county," Hynes said.
To those who know Hynes and have closely followed her tenure on the School Board, her stand against PTA-funded teaching aides was emblematic of her devotion to ensuring all students have an equal chance to succeed.
"Equity is a guiding principle for Mary," said School Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey. "It’s the kind of person she is."
After a dozen years of service to the school system and community, Hynes is retiring. Last Thursday she presided over her final School Board meeting, and next month will be replaced by Democrat Sally Baird, who defeated Cecelia Espenoza in November’s election.
Hynes’ retirement marks a major turning point for the school system. Few current students were even enrolled in Arlington schools before Hynes became in 1994 the first person elected to the board after the school system decided to no longer appoint members.
"I’ve been really honored to serve, and it was a great gift the community gave me to let me do this for 12 years," Hynes said in an interview in her home in Clarendon last week.
When Hynes first ran for office, all five of her children attended Arlington Public Schools. Now that her youngest child is 23, Hynes felt it was best to step aside in favor of others who might still have children in the school system.
"Its important to have new people on the board and fresh eyes," Hynes said. "I no longer experience the school system day to day in my home."
The school system has undergone a dramatic change during Hynes’ tenure. When she arrived on the board, the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the state Standards of Learning tests did not exist, and the system was struggling with a huge growth in students.
"When she came on the board the school system was good, but it needed to make changes to keep moving forward — and she has had a tremendous amount to do with our recent successes," Garvey said. "The community owes Mary a real debt of gratitude for the school system we have now."
THROUGHOUT HER TENURE on the board, Hynes has garnered a reputation for her keen intellect, amiable demeanor and scrupulous attention to detail, her fellow board members said. Hynes confesses that she’s "a data junky," who loves nothing more than plowing through a report to find figures to back up her arguments.
"Mary couldn’t be happier buried in a mound of paper and data," said School Board member Dave Foster, who lost to Hynes in the 1994 contest. "We will certainly miss her encyclopedic knowledge of the system."
Foster also praised Hynes’ willingness to listen to different perspectives and her ability to generate creative solutions to problems that stump other board members.
Hynes is known — and admired — among the senior school staff for her attention to detail and meticulous research, said Sue Robinson, assistant superintendent for information services.
"She always does her homework, comes to understand the information well and is very good at probing for answers," Robinson added.
Others laud Hynes’ ability to craft policy ideas and forge a consensus among board members. The strong personal relationships she formed with community activists and school staff meant that people were both more open to listening to her ideas and more willing to take her criticism, said Superintendent Robert Smith.
"She possesses the great combination of being able to get into the details of an issue, while at the same time having the people skills to understand how changes in policy should best be implemented," said Peter Rousselot, a former co-chair of the school system’s Advisory Council on Instruction.
Originally from Minnesota, Hynes moved to Arlington with her husband Patrick in 1977. With five children in Arlington schools she quickly became active in the system, serving as chair of ACI from 1990 to 1992.
The following year she led the "Future Planning Steering Team" — Arlington’s version of the Iraq Study Group. The committee was charged with coming up with solutions to a series of issues that were challenging the school system at the time, especially the large influx of immigrant students.
The group concluded that the system needed to re-draw school boundaries, but the then superintendent and School Board chair disagreed. When the County Board decided the subsequent year it was no longer going to appoint School Board members, Hynes, somewhat reluctantly, jumped into the race to ensure the vision of the study group became a reality.
"It was really important to me that public education work for everyone," Hynes said. "And at the time it clearly wasn’t working for everyone."
THE SCHOOL POLICY Hynes is best known for is the revolution in the school’s construction planning. When Hynes first arrived on the board, the process of deciding what school projects would be on the bond referendum, and how much they would cost, seemed to have little rhyme or reason.
"They would just guess what it would cost without design work, and things got added because of lobbying from parents," Hynes said.
Hynes pushed for greater accountability for projects and specific standards that had to be met.
"Mary was instrumental in reshaping the CIP," Foster said. "Due to her work we now have building guidelines that govern construction at all levels."
Much of Hynes’ time on the board has been spent grappling with ways to reduce the minority achievement gap. It wasn’t until Hynes and several other members of the current board were elected that the school system began to marshal major resources to improve the performance of black and Latino students.
"Arlington has made more progress than lots of places in the country" in shrinking the minority achievement gap, Hynes said.
In the past three years Hynes has become a leading advocate in the state for improving the instruction and assessment of students for whom English is a second language. During her final term on the board she focused on enhancing the diet and well being of students. For example, she spearheaded the initiative to rid school vending machines of candy and soda.
After working for years as a preschool music teacher, Hynes said she is excited to re-enter the workforce full-time. She is currently searching for jobs in the nonprofit sector, but looks forward to remaining a school and community activist.
Hynes’ greatest legacy may be her dedication to accountability, which is now enshrined in the every decision the School Board makes, her fellow members said.
"The accountability we take for granted wasn’t always in place," Hynes said. "Once I got on the board I always asked how do things work and how can we do it better."