Across the nation, school districts continue to face tough decisions to close gaps in funding, with sports programs occasionally finding themselves in the crosshairs. Most notably, the Duval County School District, an area which includes Jacksonville, planned to completely eliminate all sports funding before private donations made some Jacksonville school sports possible.
Now a small town in South Texas is cutting out all sports completely, but it has made that hard decision for another reason entirely: It needs all students to dramatically improve academically, or else it might close for good.
As first reported by the Associated Press, the Premont Independent School District unilaterally decided to cancel all interscholastic athletics for the remainder of the 2011-12 school year in a last ditch effort to save Premont schools, which have been on probation by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) since spring of 2011.
Finally, the TEA announced in the middle of the fall semester that the entire school district would be forced to close on July 1. That order has since been put on hold, but the school district must prove that it has made sufficient progress by the end of the school year, or else it will be annexed by an adjoining district which, in a particularly sparsely populated stretch of South Texas, is still some 35 miles away.
The biggest step toward making those improvements is the district's decision to cut sports, a move which flies in the face of small-town Texas culture, where high school football, basketball and baseball stars are revered like rock stars and actors in New York City and Hollywood.
Yet for Premont students, that reverence won't matter if there's no school to play for.
"Sports is sacred ground in the state of Texas," Premont Superintendent Ernest Singleton told the AP's Christopher Sherman. "But because we're so far behind with student performance I wanted an environment that was academic only."
There are an abundance of other problems in the Premont Schools, among them that a startling number of the district's 570 students either skip school entirely or miss far too many classes. There are also infrastructure problems with the school buildings even after the district consolidated its three schools into two just a year ago.
Whether these problems can be adequately addressed in time to save the district remains to be seen. In the meantime, the district knows it is sacrificing its biggest asset, both in terms of civic pride and student engagement, all in the name of sheer survival.
"The school shuts down in this town, the town dies," said Frank Davila, a Jim Wells County constable who also works as the school security officer and grew up here. "This is all we have."