Marney Collins Sims serves 115,000 students and 15,000 employees in Cy-Fair ISD as the general counsel. She was an associate in the School and Public Law Section of Bracewell LLP from 1998 until she took on the CFISD position in 2005.
Her duties include advising school district personnel and the board of trustees on matters, such as open government laws, employment and disability laws, constitutional rights of students and employees, real estate acquisition, development of property, construction, procurement and contracting.
Sims serves as treasurer for the School Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. The University of Houston Law Center alumna graduated summa cum laude and served as the senior articles editor on the Houston Law Review. She also held an internship for Harold R. DeMoss of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
What is your background, and what inspired you to get into the field of law?
I grew up in the Fort Worth area, and after I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in high school, I knew I wanted to be an attorney. After college, I worked as an admissions counselor and helped high school students learn about college admission and financial aid. This helped me decide that I wanted to work in the education law field.
How did you become general counsel for CFISD?
After law school, I went to work for a law firm in Houston that represented public entities, such as cities, schools and colleges. As part of this practice, I met the former superintendent, Dr. David Anthony, who offered me the position of general counsel in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD. I accepted the job and agreed to serve in this role for up to five years, and then I planned to return to private practice. That was 12 years ago, and I have never looked back.
What does a typical week look like for you?
Every day brings a new challenge or opportunity. My office supports the 88 campuses in our school district with day-to-day issues, such as compliance with laws related to schools and students, interpretation of custodial orders and guidance on district policies and procedures. I also support all of the different departments within the school district, such as human resources, communications, finance and purchasing, and construction, to name a few. I develop and implement trainings, review and revise legal and local policies, and review all district contracts. I also provide direct support and guidance to the superintendent and his cabinet as well as the board of trustees on issues, such as open government and election laws.
Is there anything in particular that you wish people knew about your job?
My job is more collaborative than combative, which may come as a surprise to those outside of the school district. My primary role as the legal adviser is to support and guide. The goal of my department, just like every department within CFISD, is to provide support to the campuses and departments so that the teachers can focus on teaching the students and administrators can focus on supporting the teachers.
What challenges come with serving CFISD?
The greatest challenge in serving a large and growing school district is building relationships with all of the different individuals who I serve and support, so that when they need me in a difficult situation or an emergency, I have already established a foundation of trust and a rapport. A vital part of being a good legal consultant is having earned the trust of those you are advising, and that takes time together.
What is your favorite part about your job?
The favorite part of my job is being a problem-solver, especially for individuals who have dedicated their lives to educating children and improving their lives. I enjoy being a resource and coming up with answers or solutions that are outside the box or that others may not have thought were possible. Public education is the great equalizer, and to provide support to those making public education possible is humbling and satisfying.
Are there any laws the district must follow that would surprise the average Cy-Fair resident?
I think the average person working outside the education field would be surprised by the amount of local, state and federal regulation of public schools. This isn’t necessarily surprising because schools and education are a universal interest to most everyone—they either have children who attend school or they attended school themselves. Because of the universal and sometimes varied interests related to public schools, we have laws from the federal down to municipal level that address all aspects of schools from the earliest date school may start, the latest date it may end, the number of instructional minutes in the school year, the number of calendar days staff must work, the courses to be taught, the tests to be given, the meals that must be served, the food that cannot be served, the holidays that must be observed and the safety drills that must be practiced, to name a very small fraction of laws and regulations impacting schools. So, it would be difficult to name one or two that would be surprising, but I do think it is noteworthy that there are many and varied laws that impact and regulate almost every aspect of public education.