The Writing On the Wall

The fight to save a South Texas school district.


A version of this story ran in the July 2012 issue.

The first day of school is supposed to be full of optimism and promise. It’s a day for blank notebooks, new clothes, fresh haircuts and a clean slate. But that wasn’t the case last fall at Premont High School. There was a sense of sadness among the students, parents and teachers. They had all heard the rumors: the state wanted to close them down. They were all but certain that this would be Premont’s final first day.

Ernest Singleton was determined to make it just another of many first days to come at Premont. The district’s new superintendent, Singleton had no intention of being its last. He had once helped save Benavides Junior High in nearby Duval County after the state threatened to shutter it, and he was planning a similar rescue in Premont. Over summer break, the school board had consolidated the high school and middle school to save money. One of Singleton’s first actions in his new job was to roll up his sleeves and join a top-tobottom cleaning and painting of the school building to get it ready for the new school year.

Sporting a starched white dress shirt and blue tie, Singleton began his first day of school at Premont Elementary welcoming parents and first-graders and getting the teachers and administrators on track. Then he marched over to the combined middle and high school, stepping through the clanky metal doors and stooping to pick up litter off the floor.

Minutes later he stood onstage in the auditorium in front of the assembled middle school students to deliver a no-nonsense speech about the grim realities facing the school and the town. A big man with a shock of white wavy hair, Singleton can be firm, demanding and intimidating one moment, warm, fatherly and patient the next. On this morning he was channeling George C. Scott’s version of General Patton.

“I know you’ve heard the rumor about the school closing down,” he roared at the students. “That’s not a rumor. That’s a fact.”

Three weeks before the start of school, a letter from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had arrived at Premont Independent School District headquarters announcing that the district had been given the death penalty. The TEA had taken the rare action of revoking the district’s accreditation. The letter ordered Premont ISD to close down on July 1, 2012. Unless given a reprieve, Premont students would be bused to schools in a neighboring district in the fall of 2012. Years of unacceptable academic ratings, complaints about rat- and mold-infested facilities, allegations of dysfunctional school leadership and constant budget deficits had finally caught up with Premont. This was only the fifth time since 1999 that the TEA had shut down a school district. Each time, the decision was final. Though there is an appeals process, Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, the agency’s director of communications, said in an Aug. 16 interview that Premont didn’t have much hope. “It would be very difficult for them to turn the situation around at this point,” she said. “They really have a poor-enough track record right now that we could have closed them now. But we wanted to give them a year to wind down.”

Though Premont’s situation looked bleak, the new superintendent had no intention of giving up. Pacing across the stage, Singleton laid out the harsh fact: Premont had 175 school days to improve attendance rates and test scores, or it would be forced to close. “The TEA is watching our every move,” he said. “If you don’t get your act together as students and if we don’t get our act together as teachers, then we are going to lose this school. That’s just the bottom line.

“Every day you goof off you are hurting our chances of staying open,” he continued. “Now, think about what would happen to the town without a school.”

These were 12- and 13-year-old kids, but even kids know what happens to a town without a school—soon there won’t be a town.

A scruffy town of fewer than 3,000 citizens, Premont is about 75 miles southwest of Corpus Christi on U.S. Highway 281. After oil was discovered in the area in the 1930s, Premont prospered on petroleum for four decades. The oil ran out in the 1970s, and the town began a slow decline. (It’s just a little too far south to cash in on the new fracking boom in the Eagle Ford.) The median household income here is just $22,000, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. But it doesn’t take census statistics to tell the town is poor. Businesses that bustled in Premont 50 years ago are boarded up. The streets are lined with abandoned houses, overgrown with weeds and overflowing with trash. Children nurture fantasies of leaving town to find success

The 570-student school district is the town’s main employer, and pretty much all Premont has left. Most other jobs here depend on passing traffic on 281, Premont’s main drag, where cars and big rigs zip between Corpus and the Rio Grande Valley. Most drivers have little reason to stop.

After the death penalty letter arrived in early August, word of the district’s imminent demise spread fast. “People were coming up to me and crying,” says school board President Carmela Garcia. “My cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing. People were asking ‘Can it be true?’ They were saying this is going to make Premont a ghost town. Because who is going to live here when there’s no school?

“It’s like a death,” she continues. “How did it come to this? We didn’t see this coming. We knew we were in trouble. But this?”

Premont’s poor academics and crumbling educational infrastructure are a result, in part, of Texas’ inequitable school funding system. Premont—a small, property-poor district with many impoverished minority students—is the kind of district that has long suffered from the way the Texas Legislature funds public education. The situation was exacerbated by the school finance reform that Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature passed in 2006. The district had undoubtedly mismanaged its budget for years, but state policies had worsened Premont’s predicament.

“We are going to fight,” Garcia says. “We are going to do whatever it takes to save the school.”

“Whatever it takes” became the rallying cry for the district’s board, students, parents, faculty and staff. “Whatever It Takes—We’re Saving Our School” read the district’s Facebook page. They didn’t realize until months later that “whatever it takes” would mean canceling all school sports—including the beloved football program. It turns out that people are willing to do almost anything when the survival of their town is at stake.

Money has long been a concern
for Premont ISD. It isn’t the only problem, but it has been the major one—just as it has for many low-performing schools in Texas. And money was the main reason that TEA Commissioner Robert Scott singled out the district for closure. “We aren’t the only academically unacceptable school district in Texas,” Garcia says. “All the school districts around us are academically unacceptable. Why isn’t the TEA shutting down all those school districts? We were in the red, and so they picked on us.”

Premont ISD’s financial problems can be directly linked to the amount of money it has available to spend on each student. According to state data, Premont’s property taxes generate enough revenue to spend $5,167 per year per pupil through a formula known as Weighted Average Daily Attendance, or WA DA. There is a clear correlation between academic success and the amount of money school districts spend per student. Texas school districts rated “exemplary” by the TEA average $6,580 per student. Districts rated “recognized” average $5,751; districts rated “acceptable” average $5,662; districts rated “unacceptable” average $5,538.

The numbers tell the story. Districts rated exemplary have on average a fiscal advantage of more than $1,000 per pupil over those rated unacceptable. Premont ISD spends $371 less per student than the unacceptable district average. In funding per pupil, Premont ranks 50th from the bottom among Texas’ 1,025 school districts.

Money may not be the only factor in a quality education— some well-funded districts perform poorly—but schools typically don’t succeed without it.

Premont ISD’s tax rate had been $1.04 per $100 of property value. That means a home appraised at $200,000 brings in annual tax revenue of $2,080. But there aren’t many homes in Premont valued at $200,000. The $1.04 rate is the state minimum set in the massive school finance reform passed by the Legislature in a 2006 special session. Gov. Rick Perry pushed for and signed the overhaul that reduced local property taxes by 33 percent. It was a trade-off. The state would increase some taxes—a revamped business tax, a buck-a-pack hike in the cigarette tax, a “liar’s tax” on used-car sales—and use that revenue to offset the money school districts lost after the 33-percent cut in property taxes.

But the swap didn’t quite work. The new business tax didn’t perform as expected, and so the promised replacement funds from the state came up short.

As the cuts were being debated, then-state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn predicted the swap would cause a multibillion-dollar “gaping hole” in the state’s finances.

That’s exactly what happened, says Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which represents several hundred mostly Texas-based businesses. “The [business] tax did not perform as expected, but it is performing on par with what other state franchise taxes are providing,” Craymer says. In other words, state leaders should have seen this coming. The new tax was expected to bring in $6 billion, but delivered about $4.5 billion instead.

A surplus in state sales tax funds made up for the shortfall at first. That helped Premont ISD and other property-poor school districts avoid shortfalls initially, but left them dependent on the state for operating funds. Then the state sales tax tanked during the recession, and to make matters worse the 2011 Legislature slashed education spending to balance the budget. That left poor districts like Premont in serious trouble.

When state lawmakers passed the tax-swap plan in 2006, they realized that fiddling with complicated school finance formulas could lead to unintended consequences, so they built a safety net of sorts. They created a so-called revenue target for each district equal to the revenue per student the district had spent in the 2006 school year (the year before the reforms took effect). This guaranteed each district a minimum level of funding, intended to keep districts from dipping into the red. For Premont, the guaranteed baseline amounted to $4,582 per student.

In the first years after 2006, the district required supplemental funding from the state to reach $4,582 per student. By 2010, the district had lost so many students that formula funding was sufficient to meet the revenue guarantee. The state supplement went away.

Today, Premont is hemorrhaging students. Over the past several years the district has seen annual declines in enrollment of 4 to 10 percent. The district has approximately 25 percent fewer students today than it did prior to the 2006 reform. S o while overall revenue is down, funding on a per-student basis is actually up. Even so, the district’s per-student funding level remains one of the lowest in the state.

The 2012-2013 state budget slashed more than $4 billion from public schools, including cuts for all districts. Premont’s cuts are proportionately less than the statewide averages.

Still, Ernest Singleton says Austin is not being generous. He says the 2006 overhaul hurt school districts like Premont. And the most recent cuts slashed half a million dollars from Premont’s already meager budget.

Many school districts responded to the 2006 tax swap by asking voters to approve a tax increase. In Premont, two attempts to bump up the tax rate were overwhelmingly rejected by voters.

Many Texas school districts are in Premont’s predicament, but Premont is the “sickest of the sick,” says Joe Smith, a former superintendent, Texas school finance consultant and editor of the education site

Smith says Premont suffers from a battery of ills, including bad leadership, overstaffing and apathetic parents, but that the main problem is the state’s inequitable school finance system.

“Premont isn’t just one little school district out there that failed. There are school districts all over the state that are suffering,” Smith says. “It’s like we take two cars to the gas station. I get two gallons of gas and you get five gallons. Then you wonder why I ran out of gas before you did. That’s what’s happening to poor school districts: They are running out of gas.”

If Premont ISD is allowed to fail, Smith says, then Texas will be sending the message that school districts are expendable. And when Texas says school districts are expendable, Texas says children are expendable.

The death penalty letter
from the TEA galvanized the community of Premont. In November, district officials once again asked voters for a tax increase, and this time voters approved, 435 to 202, hiking the district’s property tax rate by 13 cents to $1.17 per $100 of property value, the maximum rate allowed by the state. The district expects the hike will bring in approximately $380,000 annually.

Premont officials had hoped that passage of the increase by a more than 2-to-1 margin would send a signal to TEA Commissioner Scott that Premont was serious about saving its school. And that’s exactly what happened, says TEA spokesperson Suzanne Marchman.

“Had the [tax rate increase] failed, then it would have shown that the community wasn’t willing to do what was necessary to help the school district survive,” she says.

With the hike’s passage, Scott felt he could give Premont ISD “a second chance,” and was willing to offer a deal to buy Singleton more time. But there was a catch.

Scott offered 11 conditions that Premont must meet by Dec. 31, 2012, or it will again face closure. The conditions include improving academic performance, boosting attendance rates, hiring highly qualified teachers, fixing the budget, getting rid of the mold in school buildings, and installing two fully functioning science labs.

Singleton and the Premont school board were required to sign off on the deal or else see their district shuttered, watch their children bused 36 miles to San Diego ISD, and let their town wither and die.

Singleton took the deal. Premont had a reprieve. But how could Premont balance its budget and find the money for two new science labs?

That question led to a decision that is painful for any small Texas town: canceling football.

Five days into the new school year, the Premont Cowboys hosted their cross-county rivals, the Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco Badgers.

The first home game of the season brings a certain amount of ritual and pageantry. In a pre-game ceremony, each Cowboy walks onto the field with his parents at his side. At the 50-yard line, the player and his parents are announced over the PA system. A cheerleader runs a bouquet of flowers out to the mother, who beams with pride. This is a rite of passage for smalltown Texas, to stand in front of your community and be saluted. In Premont, it would soon be no more.

The concrete bleachers filled with spectators, the concession stand prepped to sell Cokes, chips, and pickles, and the sun began to drop below the tree-line to the west. The crowd settled in to watch the hometown team get pummeled.

Premont isn’t a football powerhouse; it is a football pobrecito, Spanish for “poor thing.” “Pobrecito Premont” is uttered with a sigh and a slow shake of the head. Year after year, Premont fielded teams that racked up lopsided losses. Yet the team remained a source of pride for the town.

On this opening night, the team was its usual self. By the fourth quarter, the score was 45-0. The first four Premont possessions had ended in fumbles, and Ben Bolt was winning so easily it had yet to punt the ball.

But the wiry Premont players hadn’t given up. Many played both offense and defense. Some even pulled off shoulder pads and picked up instruments to perform in the marching band’s halftime show. They were worn out, but they were picking up yardage and hoping to get into the end zone to avoid a shutout.

“In a game like this, you have to look for the little victories,” said Superintendent Singleton, standing on the sidelines, arms folded, watching the final minutes. Ben Bolt would keep the Cowboys out of the end zone, but Singleton was looking at the bigger picture. “Premont can be saved if we are given enough time. That’s the one key component.” If he were given more time, Singleton would use it to produce results: lower truancy rates, higher test scores, and a stop to the financial bleeding.

So when the TEA offered him the deal that would give the district until December 2012 to improve, Singleton had to take it, even if it meant the cancellation of school sports.

It was a cruel twist. When the state first announced it was closing Premont, one of the biggest laments from the town was over the imminent loss of its football team. The Premont Cowboys were not a good team, but they gave the town something to look forward to and rally around on autumn Friday nights. Now the football team would have to be sacrificed to save the town.

“The decision to cancel sports, that was the decision, that was the catalyst that got everything into motion for us,” Singleton says. A small-town Texas school giving up football was big news. The Associated Press, tax and Fox News covered the story.

“It was unbelievable,” Singleton said, sitting in his office (now nicknamed “The Situation Room”) this spring. “This one decision got us enough attention for people to say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t let this school district go down.’” One side of the office is covered with 1970s-style paneling plastered with Post-It notes detailing progress on the TEA’s demands: balance the budget, retire the debt, build the science labs, improve test scores and attendance.

“I was looking at that wall constantly and costing it out,” Singleton said. “Looking at the budget, I realized that I couldn’t make it.” But there was no TEA demand to have a football team. The decision seemed obvious: The state was making massive demands and offering no additional funding, so the district needed the money it spent on sports to make the necessary improvements to its academics.

“It’s been horrible,” says Mariela Navarro, Premont High’s student council president. “It’s very confusing and very, very stressful.”

Navarro was also a cheerleader, volleyball player, and a member of the band—three activities that no longer exist at Premont.

“It’s unfair because we have been doing our part. We come to school. We get good grades and yet we are the ones who have to suffer. I can’t be in volleyball. I was in cheerleading for the last three years. Next year I was going to try out for head cheerleader and then boom. No football. No nothing.”

Navarro says students were never directly told that sports had been canceled. “I got a phone call from a friend who was crying and said ‘Oh my God,’ coach had just closed the gates in her face and said there’s no more sports.”

Nathan Powell, the Cowboys’ quarterback, had been looking forward to the 2012 season this fall. “How was I to know that I had played my last game in high school?” he says.

Despite their disappointment, Powell and Navarro say they will stick with Premont and not join the growing number of classmates who are transferring to other districts. “We talk about it every day in every class,” Navarro says. “Who’s leaving? Who’s going to stay and fight?”

The students say they are paying for the sins of their fathers. They had no voice in school board elections, setting budget priorities, or years of poor school management. “We do our part and then they do this to us. No football, no homecoming game, no homecoming court,” Navarro says. “Our senior year, they just took it away from us.”

“I had no choice,” Singleton says. “I hope the students realize that it was either suspend sports for now or that would be the end of the school. The part that the kids don’t understand is that I’m looking at the holistic picture of the entire education program.”

“I didn’t jump up and down and say ‘Woohoo!’ when I was told about the suspension of sports. But I want this school to survive,” says Premont’s head football coach, Richard Russell. “So I support the decision.”

The Cowboys ended their 2011 season with one win and nine losses. The worst loss was a 73-0 drubbing at the hands of the Refugio Bobcats, who went on to become state Division-A champions.

It’s hard to blame Russell for being defensive when asked why the team had such a dreadful season. A school the size of Premont should have 40 to 50 players trying out for the team, but Premont had less than half that. “When you have less than 20 kids in your entire program and you don’t have a JV and you are trying to play at the high school level, it’s tough,” he says.

The problem—like so much else in Premont—is a lack of resources; in this case, students.

Russell says that if all goes well, in two years the football program will be rebooted. He’ll start with a junior varsity squad that will allow him to teach the fundamentals to young players. But that’s only if the TEA allows Premont to remain open.

“That chapter has yet to be written,” says TEA spokesperson Marchman. She believes that other districts can learn from Premont. “They don’t want to get that letter,” she says, adding that poor districts need to take care of their problems while there’s still time to solve them.

“I am more confident now in the future for Premont than I’ve been since we first got that letter,” Singleton said recently. As the school year came to an end, the district was well on its way to satisfying all 11 conditions set by the TEA. Singleton insists it couldn’t have been done without the decision to cancel sports. “It was the turning point,” he said.

Even Navarro, the devoted cheerleader, recognizes this. “I would like to thank Mr. Singleton for sticking with us and not quitting. He didn’t give up on us.”

But while Premont has so far saved its school, the state’s funding formula that caused so much of the trouble hasn’t changed. Premont may have survived for the moment, but the state continues to endanger poor schools.

David Martin Davies is news director for Texas Public Radio in San Antonio and host of Texas Matters, a syndicated radio news magazine.