By Linda Viertel–
Long-time Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow residents are familiar with two dedicated public servants, Mimi Godwin and Joe Lillis, who collectively served on the Tarrytowns Union Free School District (TUFSD) Board of Education (BOE) for 58 years. Both retired at the board’s last meeting on June 10th.
Godwin served for 25 years, never having missed a single meeting, and Lillis served for 33 years. Godwin stepped down as BOE President after 13 non-consecutive years; Lillis had been President for eight non-consecutive terms. Both will be sorely missed but each plans to stay involved in educational and community initiatives, as they have over their many years of service.
Godwin has lived in the village for 54 years, with both her children attending Tarrytown schools. One daughter is now living in the village, and Mimi’s granddaughter is attending kindergarten in the district. Having received her MA at Duke, and with a background in teaching elementary school in Katonah, Godwin brought her educational skills as well as volunteer commitment to everything she did as a BOE board member and chair. She was the high school’s PTA president when The Foundation for the Public Schools of the Tarrytown was founded and on the Foundation Board for 13 years. (Fun fact: She’s also one of the ubiquitous large yellow ducks helping to raise funds for Rotary at the annual Duck Derby/Y Healthy Kids Day in Patriots Park and the annual local St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.)
Lillis, a retired senior vice-president and chief credit officer at U.S. Bank’s National Corporate Institutional Banking Group, spent 25 years as a Managing Director in commercial and investment banking at JP Morgan Chase, holding senior positions in relationship and portfolio management, and syndicated and leveraged finance. He also taught secondary level mathematics in Illinois and Belgium previous to his banking career. Lillis lives in Sleepy Hollow, with his wife, Kathy Deuel. They have three adult children. He serves on both the Kendal and Historical Society Boards.
Their joint professional careers and personal strengths served the Board of Education well: Lillis’ expertise in business and management made him a valuable asset in advising superintendents in financial planning, with an emphasis on being flexible as well as pursuing financial sustainability.
“I strove to do this for years with all the superintendents, and I think I was reasonably successful at doing so,” he said. “The district should not commit to something we can’t maintain going forward.”
Godwin’s great gift was listening – to parents, staff and administrators. “I listened to concerns all the time,” she noted. Her deep involvement in the community, Rotary, and The RHSM Life Center, “brought all that network to the board.” Even as a former teacher, passionate about providing the best public education possible to our students, she emphasized, “I listened, listened, listened.”
When asked what they thought their biggest accomplishments were, Godwin responded, “Passing the school budget every year as well as the bond referendums to try and improve the facilities, especially the construction of the middle and high school.”
“That project started in 2001 when Superintendent Howard Smith arrived and didn’t finish up until 2008-9,” added Lillis. “It took a lot of convincing to keep everybody happy and have a cohesive middle school.”
Godwin continued, “The community also ended up being supportive of passage for two turf fields – at the high school and Washington Irving Intermediate School.”
Godwin emphasized, “It’s always important to look at the projection of enrollment, and continually monitor the facilities which are old now and in need of constant updating and improvement.” Both spoke about how important it was to maintain curriculums in the schools while under the constraints of a New York State tax cap. “The state doesn’t allow flexibility, so you have to watch closely; if you don’t handle your budget well, you will have to cut programs and take staffing out of the budget, which then ends up cutting programs and curriculums. Eighty-percent of the budget is staff, so the BOE has to maintain programs – not an easy task in the tax-cap world,” Lillis explained.
Both were pleased with the board’s hiring of outstanding superintendents, one of the main responsibilities of a school board. In turn, superintendents lead the district, its teachers, support staff, and principals. TUFSD was very fortunate, even in the early 1980’s, both concurred. “Superintendents in our district stayed for eight or nine years, Smith for 11, which is rare,” Lillis said.
“Yes,” Godwin concurred, “and we tried to do our best with tax-payers’ money over the years. We always tried to do our best in that regard.”
When asked about any failures or issues left unaddressed, Lillis and Godwin immediately stated, almost in unison, “Universal Pre-kindergarten. We had Pre-K in the late 1980’s that only covered about half our kids. It was an experimental program half-funded by the state and now in existence, but space and cost are an issue, so Pre-K students are chosen by lottery.”
It is their dream to have Pre-K offered to every child in the district. Washington Irving’s expansion is another “wish” for Godwin and Lillis. Washington Irving was supposed to have a wing added on in the 1930’s, and the bond referendum of the early 2000’s proposed to do just that as well as to build the high school/middle school. Both projects proved to be too costly. “The community couldn’t take both, so we went back to the drawing board and eliminated the WI wing so we could build the high school,” Godwin explained.
Teaching has changed since the 1930’s when 550 square foot classrooms were the norm; today they have to be 770 square feet. “It will be a challenge for the BOE to see what can be done that will be palatable to tax-payers since WI is the most densely populated school in the district,” Lillis stated. Both agreed that a broader, ongoing planning process would highlight the need for a WI extension in the near future.
When asked what their thoughts and hopes for TUFSD’s future might be, Lillis stressed the need to maintain programs even with a tax cap. “I am so proud of our faculty and staff, now stronger than they have been in all my years on the board. Their quality, professionalism, sophistication in data delivery and instruction techniques – it’s been so rewarding to witness that evolution. And I think it will continue because I think everyone recognizes how wonderful the district has been and will continue to be. People are proud to work there.” Godwin emphasized, “Our teachers genuinely care about the total child, and that’s just so invaluable.”
Both Lillis and Godwin felt that, over their many years on the board, it was collegial and all seven members had a similar mindset in terms of operating the affairs of the schools. “For me,” Godwin said, “It’s been a real honor to serve on the BOE and to serve students of this district.” Lillis concurred, “We’re still members of the community. We’ll continue to pay serious attention to what goes on, though one step removed. It’s been a rewarding experience, and I wish the district all the best. It’s in a great position to thrive. “
Clearly, Godwin and Lillis felt passionately about the schools or they wouldn’t have contributed public service collectively for 58 years. As Lillis stated, “We’ve all served the community as best we could.” Godwin stressed the same: “I tried my best, always.”