F-M’s first African-American school board member believes in engaging residents
by Elizabeth Doran, The Post Standard
Marissa Mims knew she was the underdog in the race for a seat on the Fayetteville-Manlius Board of Education, and that made her even more determined to win.
“I knew I was the odd one out,” she said. “I don’t fit your typical mold of anything. It’s been that way ever since I was 8 years old and became a black Republican when my parents were both Democrats.”
By winning her seat, Mims becomes the first African-American ever elected to the F-M school board. Lawrence Cummings, executive director of the Central New York School Boards Association, said he believes Mims is the only African-American currently serving on a school board outside of the Syracuse City School District, in the region. There have been others in the past, he said.
Statewide, just 2.9 percent of school board members in 2008 were African-American according to a survey by the New York State School Boards Association. Mims said she’s proud to be part of that small group.
“I never really thought about how I’d be the first black on the school board until the race was over,” she said. “Then I was like ‘wow’ it’s really great to have that accomplishment. During the race there was this man who’s kind of an Archie Bunker type and he told my friend he was going to vote for me because I made sense. I figured if I could win him over, I could get some other votes too.”
The 35-year-old single mother of twins – a boy and a girl – didn’t have much money to spend on campaigning. Rather than yard signs, she purchased two large banners which she placed in the village of Manlius, where she lives. On Election Day, she and her friend Kim Swanson spent 90 minutes on Route 92 holding the banner and waving to people who drove by.
“I just talked to everyone I could think of,” she said. “I made phone calls, sent out emails, got names of other people I could call. It was a lot of word-of-mouth. I jumped up and down so hard when I found out I’d been elected that I hurt my foot.”
The race was close. Along with Mims, newcomer Lisa Izant also was elected to the school board, along with incumbent Ilene Mendel. Longtime incumbent Dawn Cottrell, who’s been on the board since 1981, lost her seat by just 129 votes.
Mims said she believes in engaging the public and communicating openly and honestly and reaching out to everyone, including those at Immaculate Conception school. She wants to involve the F-M community in the education process and have lots of conversations with residents. Mims said she senses a disconnect between the policy makers and the people affected by the decisions, and she wants to help change that.
“People want more information, and they don’t just want to rubber stamp things,” she said. “They want to feel they are part of the process. Gone is the day when we say here’s what we’re going to do and now vote yes or no on it. We need to do things like put the budget in a PDF online and then let people email in their comments.”
When it comes to school budgets, Mims favors looking at the top tier for some reductions. ” Can we consolidate some of these positions and look at the big salaries at the top?” she said. “We shouldn’t start making cuts by looking at the little guy, like the custodian or the teacher aide.”
The key is ensuring the budget process is transparent and open. ” I will take time to talk to people,” she said,. “I’m very approachable, and I’m going to engage people. I’m on Facebook, and I’ll be on Twitter.”
Mims said she feels strong about rights for the disabled, and advocating for special-needs children. Her son has a learning disability, and Mims said she’s learned so much through her experiences with him.
Although Mims said she believes F-M is improving, securing services for special-needs children in the district can be a difficult process. “Parents need to be given much more information,” she said, “and it shouldn’t be so hard to get services. We have to make it more parent-friendly with easily accessible information. We have opened a dialogue here and I want to see that continue.”
Mims, who was born in Germany and grew up on military bases until age 13, said she’s always been fascinated by politics. She remembers handing out petitions to pardon Oliver North when she was in sixth grade and living in Washington, She wrote letters to the editor in high school, and went on to earn her degree in political science at Syracuse University.
Mims is used to accomplishing goals that don’t always come easy. When she got accepted to SU, she got on a Greyhound bus with $107 in her pocket, rode 24 hours to Syracuse and then took a taxi to the dorm because her parents were busy working. She worked all the way through college, and when she ran out of money she quit school and worked full-time until she’d saved enough to return.
“People said if I left I’d never come back, but I knew I would,” she said. Mims graduated 18 months later than she’d originally planned, and now wants to get her Master’s degree.
Mims wants her children to get involved and know about politics, so she takes them when she votes and they often accompany her to political meetings. “I’ve always understood that the way to get things done is to get involved,” she said.
Marissa Mim’s bio:
Address: 136 Washington Street, Manlius
Web Site: http://www.fmparenttoparent.ning.com
Education/Degrees: Political Science, BA, Syracuse University Minor Policy Studies
Family: children: Devin and Sarah Speck
Birthplace: Heidelberg, Germany
Experience: Director of the NYS Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate programs)program at Syracuse University. My previously employment includes Director of Program Services for the Girl Scout Council of Central New York and Legislative Aide in the New York State Senate
Community Involvement: Leadership Greater Syracuse Class of 2008, Syracuse Sunrise Rotary, FM Parent to Parent, Hiawatha Seaway Boy Scout Council Volunteer