Education in Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD, just west of the Pecos and home to the world's first rodeo, has been a proverbial bull ride for superintendents over the last 20 years.
Low-performing schools, community distrust, financial failures, dilapidated facilities, low staff morale, and lack of continuity in leadership have plagued PBTISD for far too long. In fact, it has been more common for superintendents to get thrown off the bull than complete the ride. The school district's average term of service for superintendents and interim superintendents has been just ten months.
The latest superintendent of PBTISD, Mr. Brent Jaco, has managed to stay on the bull long enough to write a remarkable turnaround story for this far West Texas school district. In just under three years since his superintendency began, the PBTISD community has benefited from a sharp rise in its educational accountability rating from a dismal D to a respectable B, an improvement in its financial accountability rating, and the successful passage of a bond election to fund significant facility improvements.
"There were a lot of needs in the district when I arrived in the summer of 2020, from academics to financial concerns, to facility issues. However, the number one concern was rebuilding trust with all stakeholders," Jaco said. "We needed to raise expectations in how we operated as an organization, from raising academic standards to improving financial accountability. This started with establishing a great team that knew their areas of expertise and who would work together to do right by students, parents, and the community as a whole."
Current Board member and former PBTISD chief financial officer, Cookie Canon, doesn't mince words when describing Jaco's influence on the district. "I worked for numerous superintendents and interim superintendents, and I have never seen a superintendent who works so hard to make students successful. Jaco brought in a tremendous team of experienced administrators who are very familiar with the curriculum and what it takes
to support teachers," Canon said.
"Morale was low, and people were struggling prior to Mr. Jaco coming," Bessie Haynes Elementary Principal and long-time PBTISD staff member Chris Henson said. "He has given us a clear direction for what our district's focus should be and provided the structure we needed to help students succeed. There is no question our focus is on our students and their families."
With an MBA in organizational leadership and strong experience in leading through change, Jaco went to work auditing the district's curriculum, which revealed significant deficiencies. He focused his first months on building a support team of curriculum and instruction professionals who, together, developed and deployed campus-based assessment tools to measure student progress.
To support these efforts, Jaco recruited a former colleague, Dr. Karen Matt, to serve as the District's Chief Academic Officer.
"When I arrived at PBTISD in January of 2021, we had an academic department of three attempting to manage through multiple improvement plans mandated by the state, and two schools identified for federal school improvement. There simply were not enough people to support teachers and ensure compliance with these governmental interventions," Matt said.
In response, Jaco and Matt designed and hired an Academic Support Team to serve all academic areas.
"For the past two years, this team has worked diligently to correct areas of non-compliance, improve curriculum, support teachers, and implement programs and processes to measure student growth," Matt said. "It's working," she added. "We've made incredible progress in a very short period of time. We are down to just one federal improvement plan, and I anticipate this last school will be off federal school improvement status at the end of this year. It has been rewarding work, and I am proud
of everyone's efforts," Matt said.
The impact of this work was felt almost immediately, with the district going from a D rating to a B rating in just two years.
"All this while dealing with additional burdens related to the Covid-19 pandemic," Matt said. "And while state ratings don't define a district", she said, "Jaco's focus on putting systems in place to support teachers and campus administrators provided the structure needed to see swift growth in student achievement."
While academics have been the district's first priority under Jaco's leadership, there is much more to running a school district. When he first looked at the books, Jaco knew he had to get their business house in order. PBTISD had failed a series of financial audits and had poor ratings in the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST), which means PBTISD's financial management practices were not up to par.
"I needed to get an expert in school finance on the team, and fast," Jaco admitted. "I know quite a bit about the financials, but I'm not an expert. I'm an educator by trade, not a numbers guy. One of the best decisions I've made as superintendent of PBTISD was hiring Tucker Durham to serve as Chief Financial Officer for this school district."
Tucker has invested the better part of the last two years scrutinizing the district's financial records, implementing new accounting systems, and ensuring PBTISD is in full financial compliance with state and federal guidelines.
"In a fairly short period of time, Tucker got us off the state's naughty list and managed to raise our state financial rating from Substandard Achievement to Superior Achievement, which is the highest rating the state offers. I'm so proud of Tucker's work," Jaco said.
Regarding the financials, Canon said, "For the first time in many years, the Board knew where they were financially. Because of Jaco's leadership over the last two years, the district achieved a clean audit and an A rating (Superior Achievement) for the sound financial management of taxpayer dollars."
Another financial victory for the PBTISD taxpayers resulted from a brainstorming session between Jaco and Durham when they noticed the interest rates on bond debt from previous investments in school facility improvements were fairly high. "We refinanced all that debt and over the life of those loans we've saved taxpayers $56 million in bond interest payments."
Local business owner and PBTISD parent, Virginia Barmore, was blunt about the state of the district prior to Jaco's arrival, calling it "chaos."
"We have been through more supers in the 11 years I have lived here than I have fingers," Barmore said. "In September, Jaco will become the longest-serving superintendent we have had in the last 20 years."
That type of upheaval creates challenges for every part of the organization. But perhaps more than anything, it creates a lack of confidence in the school district throughout the community.
"There was a lot of mistrust between our families and the school district before Jaco arrived," Barmore continued. "And it's the kids who suffer."
According to Canon, it was Jaco's dedication to rebuilding that trust that enabled the district to finally pass a much-needed bond in 2021 after three failed attempts prior to his arrival. That $178M bond - the largest in PBTISD history - allocated funds for two new elementary schools, the building of a new science and Career & Technological Education wing for the high school, a new and improved district stadium, and other facility renovations, along with the purchase of 1-to-1 devices for all students and staff. Canon believes Jaco's community involvement and his focus on transparency with the Board and the community are key reasons the 2021 bond passed.
"He works very hard at creating trusting relationships between himself, the district, and the community," she said. "One of the smartest things he did early in his role as superintendent was creating a community steering
committee that was responsible for identifying and prioritizing the needs of the district."
The steering committee was composed of community leaders, staff, parents, and students and was instrumental in informing voters. But Jaco didn't leave the work up to the committee. He was invested in educating the community about the facts and encouraging them to vote.
"Jaco was very transparent and visited many groups within the communities," Barmore said. "These visits gave him the opportunity to present facts and pictures of the decaying buildings. Accurate financial figures were used in this process."
Perhaps the most impactful change Jaco has invested in is developing a solid working relationship between himself and the PBTISD Board of Trustees, along with leaders in the towns the district serves.
"Jaco makes every effort to be a partner with the School Board and with the leadership in each of our communities," Canon said. "He is straightforward and honest and understands PBTISD can't be great without a spirit of collaboration."
Canon said it was her experience working for Jaco as an interim CFO that convinced her to run for the Board. "While performing these duties, I quickly realized I needed to be part of the Board to support this man! I am proud to be part of the Team of 8 (Superintendent + 7 Board Members) with him and to support all the work he is doing for our students, staff, and families," Canon said.
Pecos City Manager, Charles Lino, has witnessed the dramatic, positive shift in the school district over the last two and half years and credits Jaco for the change.
"The PBTISD has historically been an underperforming school district from the State of Texas standards," Lino said. "Since Brent Jaco has taken the helm, the School District has dramatically improved its performance standards and student test scores." He added, "The state of the facilities was run down and distressed. Jaco has initiated a new level of expectations and lofty goals for administration, staff, and students, which were not at the forefront prior to his arrival. He also continues to work for the betterment of the community by building relationships with other taxing entities. Jaco is a strong and direct leader, which may not set well with those used to someone who was a yes person. He does not expect everyone to agree with him but champions the needs of the entire community," Lino elaborated.
"Pecos and PBTISD is a great place, and the success we have had has been a team sport. While there is still a great deal of work to be done, we are headed in the right direction," said Jaco.