No one can accuse Elaine Morrison of not speaking her mind.
Whether it’s updating and wordsmithing a Gilbert Unified School District board policy, or reading from a prepared statement on why she chose the controversial Campo Verde High School name, Morrison’s view on an issue is usually quite clear.
“It is my responsibility to look out for every student,” Morrison said.
However, after 14 years on the Gilbert school board Morrison has decided to focus more on family, her Flagstaff art gallery and the family’s farming business.
Her open seat on the Gilbert governing board will be filled by newly elected E.J. Anderson, a journalist, Rio Salado College spokeswoman and mother of five.
The 57-year-old Morrison chose to retire from the school board after serving from 1990 to 2002, and then from 2006 when she was appointed to fill a vacant seat. She received the Arizona School Board Association’s Honor Roll Award on Dec. 11 for her years of service. She’s known as a leader, an eloquent speaker and one who has high expectations for the district’s curriculum and protocol.
Some of her views have angered many parents this year, especially with the Campo Verde name and the suggestion of 23-credit graduation requirements.
However, those who work closely with Morrison note her knowledge in all subjects, her work ethic and her community service.
Gilbert district associate superintendent Nikki Blanchard said she was “continually impressed” with Morrison’s “calm problem-solving ability, her commitment to the district and her high standards.”
“Elaine always looks at all angles when a problem or concern was raised,” wrote Blanchard in her nomination letter for Morrison’s recent honor roll award. “She is able to suspend her own agenda and acted in the best interest” of the district.
Morrison’s last few motions on the school board were some of the most controversial decisions upheld by the board this year, including naming Campo Verde High School and requiring next year’s freshmen to have 23 credits as a graduation requirement.
Morrison said she is puzzled why so many took the issue and “personalized” it to her.
Morrison also remembers in the 1990s opposing parents who wanted certain books removed from the school library, such as Judy Blume books and some horror stories.
“The point is, libraries hold the collective wisdom of our civilization,” Morrison said. “To insist books be removed prevents all children from reading (the banned books.) I wanted to protect other families’ freedoms, and teachers to use resources available for curriculum.”
She is most proud of helping to change the law to allow school districts to have first priority on state trust land for school sites. The Gilbert district was the first school district allowed to lease state land with Arizona School Facilities Board money, allowing the board to get the money back after the lease approval and payment.
“I thought if it could benefit Gilbert schools, it could help others next to state land,” Morrison said. “It really was wonderful. That was really, really interesting and ultimately a win for school districts.”
Board meetings such as the last one where the board decided on the new graduation requirements, Morrison said, are “difficult” especially with the negative e-mails and parents calling out of turn from the audience. One audience member called her a “lame duck” and said she should just step aside since it was her last board meeting.
“They were beyond rude,” Morrison said. “I’m responsible to make decisions through the end of the term.”
Morrison said her decision was based on how young people can be better prepared for life after high school.
“I must be thoughtful of the thousands of students not represented in the room and for whom a high school diploma marks the end of their formal educational training,” Morrison said. “I believe these young people need to learn more to have a place in the future. We are living through extraordinary circumstances. I am very pleased to land on the side of students learning more.”
As far as the Campo Verde decision, Morrison said she voted against having the community give high school name suggestions through an online survey. She said she was “surprised” when none of the three board members who wanted the survey suggested any other names for the district’s fifth high school.
Morrison was the only board member who publicly stated at the board meeting why she chose the Spanish name that means “green field” and why she believed it was the best name for the area. She read from a three-page prepared letter she said took her three weeks to write.
Ron Bellus, who attended the recent school board meetings, said Morrison “snubbed her nose” at the parents.
“It’s not her style; it’s her attitude,” said Bellus, who has two sons and a granddaughter in the district. “To sit there and give us a lecture on how things are done and reading out of the policy in such a condescending matter, to me, was just unacceptable. I’ve never seen such a condescending tone of voice from an elected official.
“We thank her for her years of service and it’s unfortunate it’s ended on this sour note.”
But Morrison hopes people instead will remember her “well-reasoned public service.”
DRAWN TO SERVE
As a former high school economics and government teacher, Morrison said she was drawn to serve on the Gilbert school board, an elected position that has been “very fulfilling.”
However, after her husband of 35 years, Richard Morrison, survived three bouts with cancer, she decided it was time to step down, let others give their service and spend more time with her family. Richard is a lawyer and a priest in an Episcopal church.
Morrison’s two daughters, Julie Walker, and Ellen Morrison, live in other states. So it was important for her to have a more flexible schedule to spend more time with her daughters.
Morrison and her husband are partners in a new art gallery in Flagstaff called Echo Canyon Art. The two have a home in Flagstaff and enjoy spending time in the high country.
Along with running the art gallery, Morrison will also be actively managing the Morrison family’s Windmill Ranch, a cattle ranch that extends from Cottonwood to Flagstaff.
Richard Morrison comes from a long line of farmers, cattlemen, dairymen and developers. On his mother’s side are the Neelys, and the couple now live on the Neely family homestead in Gilbert.
Elaine met Richard Morrison on a blind date and they married six months later. He was a Navy pilot and taller than her 5’11” frame, which was a plus for her.
The two moved back to the Valley and she worked in the farm office, drove a tractor and weeded. The couple leased 400 acres in Gilbert from his aunt and mom, and they grew corn, alfalfa and cotton. She worked on the farm until her first daughter was born.
Helen Hollands, Gilbert school board president, credits Morrison as a mentor who helped her become more knowledgeable and acclimated to board work and activities.
“Elaine is not only very knowledgeable in education, but about the community,” said Hollands, who was recently elected to her third term on the board. “She helped me see things a little differently. Although we didn’t always agree on things, I always enjoyed hearing her take on various issues.”