PREMONT — A plan to save a school district has come down to rows of yellow Post-it notes.
Dozens dot a wall in Premont Independent School District Superintendent Ernest Singleton's office, covering white poster boards labeled with the state benchmarks — 11 in total — that his district must meet in order to remain open next year. Each note points to a step toward the corresponding goal. Scrawled on one are two words that have brought national attention to the tiny 570-student school district in South Texas: "suspend sports."
Singleton came to Premont ISD in June. He received a letter from the Texas Education Agency in July saying that after years of financial disarray and lagging academic performance, the district would lose its accreditation and be absorbed into a neighboring district.
After the initial shock subsided — despite the district’s shabby record, Singleton said he did not expect closure so quickly — he took his case to Austin and asked for more time to turn it around. In November, Premont residents voted overwhelmingly for a 13-cent property tax hike to support the schools. A month later, the agency agreed to delay its decision by a year, setting out the stringent demands related to financial and academic improvement that now line the superintendent’s office.
The reprieve was hard-won. If Premont ISD fails this time around, there will be no appeal. With those stakes in mind, Singleton turned to a budget that he had already scrubbed bare and looked for more ways to save. The $150,000 that the district would spend during the next year on spring and fall sports, including football, stared him in the face.
“I couldn’t let the district go down to save a particular program,” he said. “A year's suspension of sports, as painful as that is, it would be much more painful to shut down and not have sports ever again in a district that doesn't exist.”
It was a daring, and rare, move in a state where the football field is hallowed turf. But at a Tuesday night high school basketball game, Premont residents appeared largely in favor of the suspension.
Students worried about their friends who talked about transferring to high school at "Fal" — in the town of Falfurrias ten minutes south— so they could participate in athletics. But they acknowledged that it would be worth it to save the school district.
Steven Pena, 15, said he was “crushed” at the announcement. Playing sports year-round, he said, helped him stay out of trouble. But without games and practices to occupy his time, he said he may study more.
“This is the time to make the sacrifice,” said Joann Moreno, sitting next to her husband, whom she met when they were both students in Premont, as they watched their son on the court.
The only words of criticism of the district came from across the bleachers, where Hebbronville families watched their team play against Premont.
Andrew Miller, whose 14-year-old son played basketball that day, said the students should not be punished for the mistakes of the adults running the district. He said taking away sports would hurt the children with the least resources — whose families could not afford to move or take them to school at a neighboring district — the most.
If the decision has come with little backlash from within the community, it could be a measure of how well it understands Premont ISD’s dire financial predicament. The district accumulated hundreds of thousands in debt by failing to properly plan for declining enrollment — it has lost more than 300 students since 2004 — and overstaffing. Last January, a study conducted by a regional state education service center found that the district had too many employees and recommended consolidating two campuses to cut costs. Before the 2011-12 school year began, the district had laid off eight employees.
Singleton has already scooped $307,000 out of the budget to pay back the remaining debt. By December, he also must come up with another $400,000 to retire a line of credit. There's also the $150,000 needed to renovate the high school science labs, which have been closed for safety reasons, have been overcome by mold. And its poorly maintained facilities have continued to drain its finances. In the fall, unexpectedly, the elementary school required an emergency electrical rewiring at a cost of $38,000.
This comes as the district is seeing $400,000 to 500,000 less from the state as part of the Legislature's multibillion-dollar reduction in public education money. But while all of the state’s 1,030 school districts are taking a hit, because of a mechanism in Texas school finance that allocates more state money to property-wealthy districts, Premont ISD, where 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, was one of the most poorly funded to begin with.
State Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat who is the vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, seized on that fact during a recent hearing. He said later in a phone interview that for him, Premont ISD’s situation was an example that “called into question the entire punitive nature” of the state’s accountability system.
“We are picking the winners and losers by the way we fund them,” he said. “In general the districts we choose to fund better become the districts that we then brag about. The districts that we choose to fund poorly are the districts that we then come down and whip.”
In 2006, when the Legislature voted to reduce property taxes, it promised school districts that going forward they would receive no less per student than they did before, creating a system that rewarded property wealthy districts and resulted in funding differences between $5,000 and $10,000 a student. Currently, over 400 school districts have joined two different lawsuits specifically attacking the inequity in how Texas pays for public education.
But at the moment, for Singleton, the district’s financial problems — because they have well-defined solutions — are the easier pieces of the puzzle. Breaking the culture of poor academics and truancy that have become endemic to the district, he said, is a mightier task.
One recent morning, he went knocking on doors with a constable and high school principal in tow, asking parents why their students were not in school. It is something he will spend an hour doing each day for the next several weeks.
The district’s funding is based on attendance, and it loses money when students do not show up for school. But Premont ISD’s fate is also tied to their performance on state tests in the spring, and students need to be in class to close what Singleton said were significant gaps in knowledge of state curriculum. Compounding the challenge, this year will also be the first administration of STAAR, a rigorous new assessment that has caused anxiety even in well-funded, high-performing districts.
The intense scrutiny has affected morale among teachers, Singleton said. He added that if student performance didn’t improve, he would be forced to make more staffing changes before the 2012-13 school year.
But back at the high school right before classes let out one afternoon, the hallways are quiet and orderly. At the end of last year, principal Rick Ruiz said, it would have been a completely different scene.
Just before students begin to spill out into the hallway, the loudspeakers came on. Singleton paused mid-sentence to listen.
Attendance was at 92 percent today, the announcement said. A nearby group of students cheered, and he broke into a smile. It is not quite where they need to be — 96 percent — but it is a vast improvement from where they were.
“We’ll take it,” he said.