Nathan S. Gibson ran for school comittee twice: first losing by 25 votes, then winning by 29 votes. He served on the school committee for 3 years, from 1986 to 1989, during which time the School Committee hired an outstanding new superintendent, Dr. Peter Holland. The following is an overview of his campaigns and his time on the school committee.
Belmont Political Landscape
Historically, Belmont was conservative and run by the Belmont Citizens’ Committee. Many people did not believe in change and liked “the way that we’ve always done it.” The Belmont Citizens’ Committee was an organization made up of the old guard. For years, on the weekend before the election, the Citizens’ Committee would distribute a yellow card with a list of the candidates the Citizens’ Committee endorsed. The Citizens’ Committee professed to endorse the most “qualified” candidates but this was merely a pretense for endorsing the candidates they liked. For example, for school committee, the Citizens’ Committee did not endorse a candidate with a Masters degree in Education, who had been a teacher and had children in the school system but did endorse a candidate who had been a bookkeeper and did not have any children. Apparently, a bookkeeper is a more “qualified” candidate for school committee than a parent of 3 who had experience as a teacher and had a Masters degree in Education.
For many years, the Citizens’ Committee was a secret organization whose membership was kept secret. On the weekend before a local election, the Citizens’ Committee’s yellow card would mysteriously appear at people’s door. The yellow card listed candidates endorsed by the Citizens’ Committee but few people knew who was on the Citizens Committee. As former Belmont Selectman Angelo Firenze said:
Politically, back then, the town was really run by the Belmont Citizens’ Committee. In order to get elected to any position in town, you needed to get their approval. They’d put your name on a yellow card and that was how you’d get elected. Beyond that, the town was run for many years by James Watson Flett. He ruled town with an iron fist.
Firenze: Belmont’s come a long way, baby!
By 1986, the growing number of new residents in Belmont had complained long enough and loudly enough about the secret Citizens’ Committee so that the Citizen’s Committee added a letter when it distributed the yellow cards. Because the inner-workings of the Citizen’s Committee were kept from the public (reminiscent of smoke-filled backroom political deals of the past), it may never be known why the Citizen’s Committee added a letter but it coincided with a loss of influence. In 1986, the Citizens Committee included a letter with one signature with the yellow card. Nonetheless, the candidates the Citizens’ Committee endorsed for both Selectman and School Committee lost their respective elections. In 1987, the letter included a list of the Citizens Committee’s Executive Board — a list of the who’s who of Belmont’s old guard. The Citizens’ Committee professed to be non-partisan, but the Executive Committee contained the leaders of the Republican Party in Belmont and did not include any notable Democrats. The inclusion of the list of the Executive Board suggested the Citizens Committee was trying to regain its influence by taking advantage of the clout of the members of its Executive Board. The Citizens Committee knew its influence was waning.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, new families were moving to Belmont including families of professionals. The new residents were significantly more progressive than the Citizens’ Committee. The signs of change appeared in state and federal elections. Mike Dukakis had a strong organization Belmont in his race in 1982. The Dukakis organization sought to take control of the Democratic Town Committee, which it did it the mid-1980’s. George Bachrach, a progressive candidate, unseated a long time incumbent in 1980 by running as an independent in the general election and receiving votes from the more progressive voters who voted in general elections.
While the Citizens’ Committee still had influence, more progressive candidates like Mary Jane Gibson, Anne Paulsen and Dr. Jeanne Widmer were elected to the school committee. The split between the Citizens’ Committee and the new progressive residents was becoming evident on the school committee. The year before Nathan’s election, the school committee had been evenly divided in its votes for chair. Three members (Margaret Gibson, James Murphy and Myron Cronan) voted for Margaret Gibson and 3 members (Jeanne Widmer, Peggy Callanan, and David Berndt) voted for Dr. Jeanne Widmer. After a number of deadlocked ballots, Dr. Widmer withdrew her name and Margaret Gibson was elected chair. The division on the school committee was just a reflection of the division in the town.
First Campaign – Losing by 25 votes
When Nathan was a third year law student, the two incumbent school committee members decided not to run for re-election. This provided an opportunity for the progressives to elect a progressive candidate to the school committee. Nathan had been active in Belmont politics — he was part of the Democratic Town Committee, helped organize the Mondale/Ferraro campaign in Belmont, and been active on a number of other campaigns including George Bachrach for state senate and Mike Dukakis’s re-election campaign for governor. Nathan was approached and asked to run. There already was one progressive candidate in the race and there was a concern that if there were two progressive candidates running, then the Citizens’ Committee would run two conservative candidates and that might lead to the election of two conservative candidates. There had been an unwritten rule that each group would have one candidate to fill one of the two positions that were open each year. To avoid alerting the conservatives that the progressives were going to have two candidates, Nathan quietly collected nomination signatures and turned them into the town clerk minutes before the filing deadline.
Nathan’s candidacy was a surprise to many. In this race, there were now two progressive candidates in a field of six candidates running for two open positions. By quietly collecting signatures and filing at the last minute, Nathan was entering the race late. While his mother, Mary Jane Gibson, was a popular state representative, Nathan was relatively unknown except among Democratic Party activists. Mary Jane Gibson had been on the school committee for six years (1974 to 1980) and was serving in the state legislature when Nathan ran.
The race was close. Peggy Callanan was the first place finisher by a large margin and Myron Cronin and Nathan S Gibson were close for the second seat. Nathan won in 5 of the 8 precincts but lost by a large margin in precinct 8 (Myron’s home precinct and the Winn Brook school district). Myron won in precinct 8 by 187 votes and Nathan was not able to over this margin. Nathan’s campaign had mailed to likely voters, and he had gone door-to-door but ultimately he lost by 25 votes.
Second Campaign – Winning by 29 Votes
Even though he lost by 25 votes, it seemed possible that two progressives could be elected to the school committee. Mike Widmer, husband of Dr. Jeanne Widmer, developed and advocated for the strategy of running two progressive candidates. Each year, two people were elected to the school committee. Each voter could vote for two candidates. Many voters would only vote for one to improve that candidate’s chances of winning. Mike thought that there were enough progressive voters who would vote for two candidates. He thought if they voted for two, instead of one, the composition of the school committee would change. He was right.
Not deterred by his initial loss, Nathan started earlier the next year. This campaign, however, would be more challenging. The Citizens’ Committee had an incumbent on the school committee, James J. Murphy, who was running for re-election. Instead of there being two open seats, there was an incumbent in one of them. Nathan started early. He announced his candidacy in late January and ran ads and issued press releases that were printed in the local paper.
This time, Nathan was successful and squeaked out a victory by 29 votes. As the election results came in, Nathan was losing by 104 votes with one precinct left to report. Precinct 2, whose coordinators for Nathan were Dorothy and Fred Irving was the last precinct to report its votes. As Nathan’s supporters waited for the results, Dorothy said that she thought they had gotten a good response in Precinct 2. She was right. Nathan’s father arrived at the campaign party and announced the results. The crowd erupted. Nathan won in precinct 2 by 137 votes and by 29 votes overall. This marked a critical change in Belmont politics.
With Nathan and Karen winning and James Murphy losing his re-election bid, the vote for chair was now expected to be 4-2 for Dr. Jeanne Widmer.
School Committee Members
There are six members on the Belmont School Committee. As Nathan started his term, these were the members of the school committee when their terms expired.
Nathan S. Gibson, term expired in 1989. Nathan came from a political family. Nathan’s father, R. Jerrold Gibson, had been a minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church from 1960 to 1963 and at Harvard Epworth United Methodist Church from 1963-1965. Jerry Gibson had participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1965 as part of the civil rights movement. Nathan’s mother, Mary Jane Gibson, was politically active for Nathan’s entire life. She supported Ed Muskie and George McGovern. In 1974, Mary Jane ran for school committee in Belmont and became the second woman elected to the school committee in Belmont’s history. In 1977, she easily won re-election to the school committee and she ran for and was elected state representative in 1978. In college, Nathan took a semester off to work on the Kennedy for President campaign. While in law school, Nathan organized law students for the Mondale/Ferraro ticket. Nathan ran for town meeting member in Belmont in 1978.
Karen Pressey, term expired in 1989. Karen was a thoughtful dedicated parent. Karen consistently worked hard to try to do the right thing. She had been a Town Meeting Member for 9 years prior to being elected to the School Committee and was the former co-president of the Winn Brook PTA. She also served for 6 years on the Belmont Personnel Board.
Margaret “Peg” Callanan, term expired 1988. Peggy was a decent, hard working, caring parent who was a teacher. Unfortunately, Peggy bore the brunt of the anger about the removal of Dr. Casey as superintendent. While the school committee was bound by confidentiality not to discuss the process and decision to remove Dr. Casey from his position as superintendent, the members who were supporters of Dr. Casey (Myron Cronan and Margaret Gibson) were vocal critics in the community about the school committee’s decision.
Myron Cronan, term expired 1988.
Myron appeared to be a friendly and decent person with no political agenda except to maintain high quality schools in Belmont. In 1988, however, he ran a negative re-election campaign in which he accused the majority on the school committee of attempting to “compromise the quality of the school system.” His campaign literature was significantly more negative and nasty than he was in person. Myron complained about the majority on the school committee but when he was re-elected and became chair of the school committee, he never, ever reached out to anyone on the other side. In his letter he complained about the fiscal and personnel policies, but as a school committee member, he never proposed alternatives, never offered amendments, nor worked to change any of the policies.
Dr. Jeanne Widmer, term expired 1987. Dr. Jeanne Widmer was singularly qualified to be on the school committee. She had a master’s degree in English, a doctorate in Behavioral Studies, and had taught in both high school and college. She is married to Mike Widmer and they had three children who attended the Belmont public schools. Dr. Widmer is bright, innovative and worked tirelessly to keep other school committee members informed of what was happening. As chair, she was principled and committed to doing what was right. Belmont citizens will never know what she went through to lead the change in Belmont. She bore a tremendous cost politically and personally for her leadership on the school committee. Dr. Widmer now the Director of the Center for Living and Learning in Belmont.
Margaret Gibson (no relation to Nathan S. Gibson), term expired 1987. Margaret described herself as loud with strong opinions. She was arrogant and at times crass. She was known for muttering sarcastic or disparaging remarks under her breath. She had no political involvement prior to running for school committee in 1978. Margaret first ran for school committee after Mary Jane Gibson had been elected and then re-elected to the school committee. Some people suspected that Margaret Gibson as encouraged to run for school committee to either take advantage of or confuse the general public because of the similarity of her name with Mary Jane Gibson. It is notable that in her first campaign for School Committee, none of her campaign materials contained a picture of Margaret Gibson.
Dr. William “Bill” Casey was superintendent when Nathan was elected. Dr Casey had been superintendent in Abington before being hired as the superintendent in Belmont, replacing Dr. McGrath. Ironically, Dr. Casey was hired by the school committee in 1978 when Mary Jane Gibson was a member. Mary Jane Gibson, who served on the School Committee from 1974 to 1980 was the only member of the school committee who voted against hiring Bill Casey. Just prior to Nathan’s election, the school committee had extended Dr. Casey’s contract for 3 years.
The first year
Four months after Nathan’s election, the school system was caught trying to pay invoices from the previous fiscal year in the following fiscal year. The town treasurer discovered that the school system had submitted invoices to be paid after the books had been closed for the year. The school system had overspent its budget by over $400,000. This budget deficit was discovered in the summer by the town treasurer.
Superintendent Bill Casey did not have a good explanation either (1) why the school system overspent its budget; (2) why he didn’t know about the school system was overspending its budget; or (3) if he knew, why he didn’t tell the School Committee that the school system was exceeding its budget. Nathan strongly believed that the Superintendent knew or should have known about the overspending. Either way, the problem was sufficiently egregious that Dr. Casey should not continue as Superintendent in Belmont. However, not everyone agreed.
Other school committee members were initially split on whether Dr. Casey could continue as Superintendent. Dr. Widmer felt strongly that a change needed to be made, Peggy Callanan and newly elected Karen Pressey were less confident and Margaret Gibson and Myron Cronan were opposed to terminating Dr. Casey’s contract. Margaret Gibson and Myron Cronan were strong supporters of Dr. Casey and were never willing to hold him accountable for overspending or not at least being aware the school system was overspending.
Because of the overspending, there was a deficit in the following year’s budget. Much of the first year of Nathan’s term was spent trying to find ways to cut the budget to absorb the $400,000 deficit from the previous fiscal year. At the time, the Board of Selectman consisted of the late Wally Flewelling, Bill Monahan, and Anne Paulsen. Wally Flewelling and Bill Monahan were conservative while Anne was more progressive. If Nathan had not been elected and Jim Murphy was re-elected, some suspect that the school committee would have elected Jim Murphy as chair, and he would have worked with Wally and Bill to sweep this issue under the rug. Since Jim was not re-elected, and Dr. Widmer was elected chair, some suspect that Wally and Bill tried to use this issue to discredit Dr. Widmer and undermine her role as chair.
Ugly Politics in Belmont School Committee Races
When Myron Cronan and Peg Callanan ran for re-election the following year, it was an ugly, nasty campaign. Newcomer Anne Marie Mahoney challenged the incumbents and both she and Myron ran smear campaigns. It was among the nastiest elections in Belmont in a number of years (although not nearly as ugly as the antisemitic campaign in the 1970s against Malcolm Hecht). The town was bitterly divided.
In this election, Peggy was not re-elected in part because of the negative campaign run by Myron and Anne Marie. Peggy became the target for all of Dr. Casey’s supporters in Belmont and the people who wanted to keep things they way they were. As part of the majority that moved Belmont schools into the twentieth century, Peggy was targeted by the Citizens Committee and conservatives in Belmont.
Anne Marie Mahoney ran for school committee in 1988. Anne Marie was a long time resident of Belmont and had 4 children attending the Belmont public schools. She would serve 12 years on the School Committee, including 2 years as chair. She also served for 4 1/2 years on the Board of Selectmen, including 6 months as Chair. In her first campaign for school committee, she ran a nasty campaign. Her literature would ask “Is this way to run a school system?” She did not take a position on whether Dr. Casey should have continued as superintendent after his role with the budget deficit — either he didn’t know about the deficit or he knew and didn’t tell the school committee about it. Instead, she would criticize the termination arrangement, calling it a buyout of his contract and saying it took money away from valuable education priorities. Not taking a position on whether or not Dr. Casey should have continued as superintendent but complaining about the buyout is a lot like not taking a position on cancer but criticizing any surgery to remove it. What was the alternative? Hoping the cancer will go away by itself?
Hiring of a New Superintendent
The new school committee continued with the process of looking for a new superintendent. Some observers expected the new school committee to be deadlocked on the final two candidates with Nathan S. Gibson, Jeanne Widmer and Karen Pressey supporting Dr. Peter Holland and Margaret Gibson, Myron Cronan and Anne Marie Mahoney supporting the other finalist. In a surprise move at the school committee meeting, Margaret Gibson cast her vote for Dr. Holland. Dr. Holland retired in 2008 but is widely credited for the level of achievement of the Belmont school system.
In 2009, US News and World Reports gave Belmont High School a gold medal and named it the 100th best non-private high school in the United States and the second best in the state of Massachusetts.
In 2008, Peter looked back on his years as superintendent and said:
Belmont was a really good school district (when I arrived). But I think we’ve taken it to a different level. At the time I came there were 5 AP courses, now we have 26 at the high school level. Back then we typically would have 3 or 4 national merit (scholarship) finalists. This year we had 7 and last year we had 10. Our SAT scores were quite good, but now they’re considerably higher. We had 22 sophomores and juniors with one or more 800 scores. Among seniors, we had 28 seniors get 48 800 scores, and that’s out of a class of 280 — so you had 10 percent with at least one 800 on their SAT. It blows me away. The level of academic work is terrific. I think a lot of that has to do with the teachers, alignment of the curriculum, good staff development, and that’s all under the direction of Pat Aubin. She’s done a masterful job with instruction and assessment. All four of those areas have to be aligned. Pat’s accomplished that.
In other areas, we’ve seen a huge growth in community service area. At the High School, kids did a total of 32,000 hours of community services. We had 119 kids receive the presidential honor, which goes to those who have done more than 100 hours of community services — again, around 10 percent of those in the school. And that’s great. It shows an interest of the school community in the larger society. So those are some of the things I feel good about.
With the hiring of Dr. Holland, Belmont schools were in good hands. Among his first actions was the re-organization of the central administrative office in which he hired terrific staff and cut the costs of central administration by over $100,000. Dr. Holland continued to make improvements throughout the system. As a result of the change in superintendents, Belmont became known for having one of the top school systems in the country. Belmont High School was widely recognized as one of the top high schools in Massachusetts and the United States.
Having witnessed the ugly campaign in 1988 and having hired an outstanding new superintendent who would be in Belmont for years, Nathan chose to not run for re-election in 1989.
- Ellen Gibson Announces Candidacy for School Committee from Ward 1 (ellengibson.org)
- Ellen’s Campaign Announcement in the News (ellengibson.org)