Sixteen years ago, Missy Bender was volunteering in her daughter’s kindergarten at Daffron Elementary School in Plano when she realized she could do more to help people. “I felt this incredible moment where I just realized I can help her friends, her classmates, but why don’t I just help all the kids in the school district,” she said.
Someone suggested she run for office on the school board. She did some homework and signed up as a candidate. Two years later in 2006, Bender won the election. She served 13 years on the Plano school board until 2019, including three years as president.
But the story goes back much further to 1975, when Bender moved to Plano with her family. She was a fifth grader at Forman Elementary School and graduated from Plano schools. She went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college.
Along the way, she grew to love her community. Seeking an office was not about politics. It was a heartfelt calling and a passion for a cause.
“I felt very connected to education because of my experience in the Plano school district and how it had changed my life,” she said.
During the first in a series of in-depth videotaped discussions with candidates about running for local office, Bender joined another education trailblazer, former Texas Sen. Florence Shapiro, to give pointers on how to seek an elected position. Together they outlined the impact elected officials can have on education issues.
The candidate talks are part of the Collin County Votes initiative of the Collin County Business Alliance in partnership with Local Profile to raise awareness and engagement in local elections. CCBA, celebrating its 10th anniversary, engages business leaders and fosters collaboration to drive regional impacts in key areas ensuring the vibrancy of the community’s future. Monica Shortino, the director of the CCBA, moderated the recent online conversation.
While Bender and Shapiro come from different backgrounds and experiences, both stressed the importance of learning about issues and connecting with their communities,
After Bender graduated from college, her mother got a college degree.
“It totally transformed my family’s life,” she said. “I wanted to make that happen for others.”
Start by volunteering
Becoming a candidate for any office begins with volunteering and building relationships, said Shapiro, a Republican senator for 20 years from 1993 to 2013 who also served as chair of the education committee of the Texas Senate.
Before holding public office, she founded the Plano Service League, now known as the Collin County Junior League, serving as its first president. She also started the Information Service Center when Plano had 50,000 residents compared to today’s almost 300,000.
As with Bender, all it took was a little nudge to become a candidate. In 1979, former newspaper publisher Louise Sherrill asked Shapiro to seek office because he was retiring from Plano City Council. Shapiro won and served as a member of the Plano City Council for 13 years, including two years as mayor until 1992.
“It very much grew out of my volunteer work in the community,” Shapiro said. “There’s a misnomer out there that you have to have money. I don’t believe that. You have to have that support system and that right message at the right time.”
Shapiro, who had three small children in 1979 when she was on the city council, said the support mechanism is especially essential for women candidates.
“Without a support system it’s a lonely, lonely place,” she said. “It’s important that you have people who can encourage you and support you.”
Volunteer work helped Bender find her mission after walking away from her career as a management consultant with IBM and moving to Plano with her husband while pregnant.
“I was home and everything had changed,” she said. “Now I’m a mother and who am I at that point. I searched for five years trying to figure out what I am supposed to do. I had this calling to do something.”
Junior League was a great way to learn about a community and how to volunteer effectively, she said. She also became involved with the PTA, homeowners association and various events at her church.
“I didn’t know anything about the politics of it all,” she said. “In this journey, I learned and I started my civic chapter in my life.”
Learn about the issues
Before deciding to run for an office, Bender said it’s important to learn about the issues and how policy is made.
“What I decided to do was if I am going to serve on a school board then I ought to go to a school board meeting,” she said. “So I started going to meetings.”
Bender took notes and signed up to serve on district committees to learn how things worked. She bought a book on how to run local elections and win. She interviewed people to figure out what they were thinking.
“It’s like running a small business,” the former businesswoman said. “You have to have a plan.”
Once in office, you continue to learn.
Plano was growing exponentially in the 1980s when Shapiro was on the city council. She depended on City Hall staff to understand the terminology and she went to public hearings to hear what residents were talking about.
“The city was on fire and we were really learning everything we could about planning and zoning, growth, potential growth and where we were going,” she said. “We were literally learning how to build a city.”
Shapiro was serving as Plano mayor when former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, state treasurer at the time, told her she would be the perfect candidate for the Republican state senate race against a long-time incumbent Democrat.
While school boards and city councils are nonpartisan, Shapiro had to learn what it was like to run in a party, a more intense experience with so many more issues.
Shapiro will never forget one gut-wrenching issue. Shortly after she won her election, someone snatched a 7-year-old girl from a park in Plano and killed her. Investigators began to see gaping holes in the criminal justice system. Shapiro and a team of legislators gathered experts from district attorneys offices and child protective services to address these gaping holes.
Her series of bills became known as Ashley’s Laws. They severely punish sexual predators and quickly became national benchmarks in the fight against sex offenders.
“I think of that little girl every Labor Day weekend and her wonderful family who made us feel like what we were doing was good and that we were accomplishing a lot,” said Shapiro who chaired the committee of state affairs before switching to education.
That’s where she met Bender, who often sought advice from Shapiro on creating a local vision for education.
Part of that vision involved the establishment of Plano school district’s Academy High School, a STEAM interdisciplinary alternative to the regular high school experience that offers collaborative team projects and the ability to attend classes without structured class periods.
“This particular school is an embodiment of the future of education in my mind,” Bender said. “It is an incubator, it’s like a research and development facility for a school district.”
The school offers transformative lessons to other schools across the district.
“It was like the beginning of a big usher of change and options based on what resonated with students, the way they wanted to learn and what they wanted to learn,” she said.
Looking for diversity
As Collin County continues to grow with a more diverse landscape, leaders from different backgrounds need to be encouraged to step up, Shapiro said.
Diversity, Shapiro said, needs to be in every area, including gender, race, even in age.
“It’s really important that all citizens always feel like they are being represented and that means you have to have a diverse board of any kind,” she said. “Once they feel they are not represented they stop voting.”
Reach a hand out to someone different, she suggested.
“You may ask yourself why me, do I deserve to have this spot?” Bender said. “But then I realize why not me. We need to help people to begin to see themselves in this way. If I have all this skill and passion I deserve a seat at the table. You need to help them imagine that for themselves.”
Get out the vote
It doesn’t stop with running in an election. Candidates rely on voter turnout, which is historically low in local elections.
“You have to educate, you’ve got to get voters engaged in a topic of some sort that is of interest to them and then you need to tug at their heartstrings about being civically engaged,” Shapiro said.
Most people are so busy with other things in their lives they usually aren’t paying attention to what impacts them on the local level. That’s where a long term solution needs to come in, Shapiro said, pointing to Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency item for the legislature to ask for civic engagement classes to be taught in the schools.
Many don’t understand the role and responsibility and decisions the school board makes that impacts their lives, Shapiro said.
“If in the long term more attention is given to that we will see more voter turnout grow,” she said. “It’s going to take a long time. But we need to teach people how to use their voice not just at the poll but do it year round.”