By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
GRANITE FALLS — If all goes according to plan, Barbara Belshee’s career in finance will begin and end as a volunteer in an elementary school library.
Belshee was a young mother with a son at Hillcrest Elementary in Lake Stevens when she first inquired about helping out.
That was in the mid-1970s.
It was in the library, where she was particularly drawn to help older students who struggled in school, that she heard about an opening keeping the books for the Lake Stevens Middle School student government. Among other things, the school was looking for someone who worked well with children and was outwardly unflappable. She didn’t let her lack of background in finances discourage her from applying.
That job led to another, which led to another and another.
It also began a long road of furthering her own education. The Alaska transplant with a high school diploma chipped away over the years, first earning her associate’s degree at Everett Community College in her early 30s. A decade later, often driving three hours a day while working part time for two school districts, she received her bachelor’s in business with a finance emphasis from Western Washington University.
Belshee worked for several districts along the way: Arlington, Bellingham, Lake Stevens, Granite Falls, Marysville, Everett and Edmonds. She also was hired on contracts to work for the Snoqualmie Valley, Shoreline and Seattle districts.
Somehow, she kept feeling drawn back to Granite Falls.
It was the small-town district that gave her perhaps her biggest break. In the mid-1980s, Granite Falls hired her as its business manager.
She soon realized she was in over her head. It was humbling. She spent hours each week consulting people outside the district who could help her decipher complex funding formulas and understand tricky state and federal regulations.
All the while, the district showed its confidence in her.
“I was traumatized by my lack of education and knowledge,” Belshee said. “I really felt inadequate. I was traumatized, but I was also grateful.”
She worked at Granite Falls for more than two years. She later got a job with the Arlington School District where business manager John Jenft took her under his wing. Jenft was known statewide for his expertise in public school financing and Belshee soaked in his advice.
She sensed his passion for his work every time he would call her into his office to show off a new spreadsheet he’d made.
As she honed her skills at other districts, she kept Granite Falls in the back of her mind.
When she retired in 2009, Belshee decided she wanted to put her financial skills to use as a volunteer.
Granite Falls topped her list of places to offer her help. She knew from experience it was a district with a lean budget and that her skills would be valued.
Granite Falls finance director Mike Sullivan is thankful Belshee stepped forward.
“Honestly, she is more like a mentor in what she knows in terms of accounting and budgeting,” he said. “The nice part of having Barb here is she provides a checks-and-balance. If I’m doing something, she gets to look at it and give me feedback. The real strength is she has been able to review my work. I have more confidence in our financial position and the financial statements we provide.”
In a small district, it is comforting to have that safety net, he said.
Belshee often works two to three days a week. During audits or when the district is trying to close its books on a given year, she sometimes will put in a five-day week.
“She is just willing to go the extra mile,” Sullivan said. “She senses what needs to be done and does it. She is retired and she wants to continue to help. It’s admirable.”
Eventually, Belshee plans to return to where it all began.
“When I’m finished in Granite, I’m thinking maybe I will volunteer in an elementary school library,” she said. “Those kids are so cute.”
In some ways, Sullivan has become spoiled. Not only does Belshee bring her expertise to the office, she also likes to provide baked goods she makes at home.
“I dread the day that she is done,” Sullivan said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org.