Surrey’s longest-serving school trustee – 32 years and counting – was a little bit out of breath, as she took a few minutes Friday afternoon to chat about her career, the future of the city’s school system, and the upcoming challenges it faces.
Originally, the conversation – coupled with the receiving of a ‘Proclamation of Celebration’ signed by B.C. Premier Christy Clark, and awarded to her by former longtime Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg, who spearheaded the honour in one of his final acts in office – was all the White Rock resident had on her schedule that afternoon. But just after lunch, she happened to log into her Twitter account, saw that White Rock Elementary was hosting its annual Games Day, and decided to wander over to say hello.
Soon enough, she was right in the middle of the action, competing alongside parents, teachers and students in a spirited four-way tug-of-war contest.
“That wasn’t on my list of things to do today,” she laughed.
Unscheduled or not, such participation – and interest in the day-to-day goings-on at all of Surrey’s 125 schools – is a major reason Hogg, who served five terms as an MLA, wanted to honour McNally Friday, a few weeks before school is dismissed for the summer.
“What I’ve really noticed about Laurae is her engagement in the community. She’s at every school – every sporting event, she’s judging every contest. She’s just out all the time, even today,” he said.
“That’s what is really unique about her. Most politicians, at whatever level, I don’t think ever get close enough to an issue to have a visceral understanding of what’s going on, but Laurae has been in the schools consistently, and is aware of everything.”
McNally, meanwhile, says her avid participation is no accident, but rather has been a concerted effort, since her first day on the job, to do her job as trustee as best she can.
“When I was first elected, I made a vow that if you wanted to make a difference in the school system, you had to be out in the schools every day and find out what was going on,” she said. “You need to do that – you can’t just go to a board meeting and read a report that somebody’s written. I’m a visual learner and I need to get out there and see what’s happening.”
Her methods often have a lasting effect, too – as evidenced by her annual turn as a judge at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary’s annual chili cookoff.
“I judge it every year… and this year, I walk in there and this boy says, ‘Hi Mother Goose!’” she explained. “Well, I played Mother Goose in an elementary school’s musical 10 years ago, and this kid remembered me.”
The job is more than just chili cookoffs and tug-of-wards, however. In fact, with the Surrey School District grappling with serious challenges – namely, how to find adequate space for its ever-growing student population – McNally said this school year, of all the others, “has been the one with the most change.”
The recent Supreme Court decision – which regulates class sizes and requires more classrooms – has further thrown a curveball at administrators and decision-makers, she said. On that topic, she is quick to credit the unsung heroes of the school district – maintenance and facilities crews – as well as “our great teachers.”
Considering the turnover she’s witnessed over three decades – “Twenty-four ministers of education,” she said – McNally said she “feels like a historian sometimes” and is often the go-to person for staff and other trustees when questions need answering.
However, she is also looking firmly at the future, and has been one of the city’s strongest proponents for building new schools, such as yet-to-be-built Grandview Secondary.
“We need schools desperately – we need them yesterday,” she said. “I just want a shovel in the ground (at Grandview). I might go one day and dig a hole myself.”