BROOKESMITH — Steve Mickelson doesn’t know all of the events that transpired before he became superintendent of the Brookesmith school district.
That happened a few weeks after the 2016-’17 school year was under way and followed the abrupt resignation of then-Superintendent Guy Birdwell.
There had been talk that dwindling enrollment and financial issues would force the district to close.
“I don’t know all of the details … I just decided to move forward with what we have and not try to figure out what happened,” Mickelson said recently in his office. “I hear this from one person, I hear something else from another person, something else from another person.
“I think the bottom line is, it was believed strongly that we were going to close.”
After steep budget cuts and working “with next to nothing,” and seeing an enrollment that fell last year to as low as 118, the district has rebounded with a healthier budget and an enrollment that’s pushing 170.
The district has seen an enrollment of 200 in previous years, and Mickelson said he’d like to see it reach that number again.
“When everybody thought we were closing, there was kind of a mass exodus, of sorts,” Mickelson said. “We lost staff, too. A lot of folks believed the district was going down. But we are doing well and I am happy to say we have taken great measures to cut back on the budget.
“We’re still tight. We’re coming out of a hole. We have really worked to conserve. Our fund balance continues to rise. It’s not where it needs to be by any means. We’ve got a full staff. All the classes are covered. We’ve been able to order new curriculum, new software. We’ve actually done a number of things. We have a budget that’s solid, not only on the academic side but the athletic side.”
The district has 16 teachers and a total staff of 36.
Mickelson said the district is strong academically and getting stronger. “We have a very strong principal who’s in the classroom routinely,” Mickelson said. “He’s a big part of this.”
Danny Copeland is in his first year as Brookesmith principal, and he is also the girls basketball coach. Copeland previously worked in Gustine.
“We’ve got some outstanding teachers,” Copeland said. “We have some experienced teachers and we have some new teachers but as a whole they’re very experienced teachers and really doing a good job. I’m really impressed with the way our teachers teach.
“It’s a very family atmosphere out here. Brookesmith’s got a lot of tradition. I’m also the girls basketball coach. You walk into the gym and you see all the tradition, all the signs up and all the awards that they won.
“But you also look in the halls here and see all the academic awards. People don’t realize how many academic awards that Brookesmith has won over the past few years. We just want to continue to grow with that and continue to get better at what we’re doing. We’ve got a lot of good students here.”
Students are working hard, and “we’ve raised our expectations,” Copeland said.
“It’s a “very exciting time to be a Mustang — just the atmosphere and the culture. We’re trying to develop a culture and an atmosphere and an environment that is conducive to learning — and not only learning in the classroom but being productive citizens. I think we’re doing that.”
‘We had a plan’
Mickelson talked further about the district’s recovery from the bleak days when it was in danger of closing.
“One thing we did was, we really pushed the (school district’s) reputation by word of mouth,” Mickelson said. “I knew the district was going to be fine if we followed closely what we had put together as far as finances would go. We had a plan, and if we followed it, I knew the district would be fine.”
One of the first events to occur was the reduction of the district’s budget by $300,000. “We had to cut way back on spending,” Mickelson said. “But beyond that, you have to really kind of battle the perception … I still hear people say ‘I thought Brookesmith was closing.’ And it affected everything.
“The Texas Education Agency was under the impression we were closing, so they came in and we had a low fund balance. We got audited. It’s never fun having to deal with those things.”
With word that the district might be closing, many juniors expedited credits in the 2016-’17 school year so they could graduate, Mickelson said.
“That was another reason we got hit pretty hard that next year,” Mickelson said. “We lost, like, a class of kids, and so we’ve had to come back from that one as well.
“You get a lot of negative publicity, people stop coming, people start thinking it’s over, there’s no reason to support the school any more.”
But the public started to see that the district was hiring teachers, and the narrative began to change, Mickelson said.
“The board has been very supportive and was just adamant about keeping Brookesmith open,” Mickelson said. “And they have been fantastic to work with. This could not have worked if we didn’t have a great team.
“ … It’s the staff, it’s the kids and it is definitely the community. And the community has come through. We’ve had donations, just real positive remarks and just support from the folks locally. And that has helped tremendously.”
Mickelson said he’s proud of the Brookesmith district and described it as “one of the best kept secrets in Texas, in my opinion, one of the best places to raise kids, to send your children. You can walk through the halls any time at Brookesmith and it’s a pleasant place to be.
“We have a strong athletic department, an athletic program that seems to be working very, very well. I think if you’re looking for a district where your child can grow academically, this would be the place to be. The kids really get along. The staff works together. We enjoy working with each other. I can’t say enough cool things about this district I hope I did it justice.”