By JACOB LOPEZ
San Benito CISD is nearing the end of the Antonio G. Limón era.
Limón will soon be stepping down as SBCISD superintendent of schools after having served in such capacity for 10 years. He’ll be handing over the reins to Dr. Marc A. Puig after the Board of Trustees recently selected Puig to head the district.
On Thursday, Limón spoke candidly about his time with the district and looked back on that which garnered him praise and criticism.
The San Benito native, born at Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital in 1950, was delivered by Dr. CM Cash (the namesake of Dr. CM Cash Elementary School) and grew up in Rio Hondo before traveling the country.
Upon eventually settling down in San Benito, Limón brought with him education including a seven-year period in which he served as a news anchor in Laredo, where he conducted the weather forecasts and managed a radio station.
In his time as superintendent, a tenure which began in 2004 after serving the district as its Human Resources Director, Limón has overseen the construction of Bobby Morrow Stadium, establishing an on-site health clinic for district employees as well as insurance plans.
Regarding the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test, the predecessor standardized test of the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), Limón noted increased student performance in all subjects over the life of the assessment.
“We were blessed … we had a steady growth,” said Limón, particularly in science. “Probably not as fast as we would want it to grow, but it was steady, and it was consistent.”
He also pointed to progress in STAAR testing.
“We met standard, except for one campus (Frank Roberts Elementary),” said Limón of the 2013-14 school year performance, adding, “The previous year, all our campuses met standard.”
Valley-wide, taking into consideration the 30-some districts’ academics performance, “San Benito would probably be toward the upper-side of the middle,” he said concerning the STAAR test.
While he said that there’s always room for improvement, Limón maintains, “One of the biggest satisfactions I have (is that) we graduate 500 to 600 students or more with a quality education, allowing them to be able to compete at any level at any university.”
He also expressed pride in the fact that San Benito High School was established as an “early college high school” before it became a widespread practice.
The district also organized a program to graduate “hundreds of students who were on the verge of dropping out or who were already dropouts” – this through the Gateway to Graduation Academy Alternative School.
“The main purpose of it was to reach out and recapture those students that had already dropped out,” he said.
After those students started going to school, the district began encouraging the students who were academically behind and unable to graduate with their peers in hopes of deterring them from dropping out.
Through Gateway, Limón estimates that 300 students have graduated who otherwise may not have completed high school.
“What I would like to be remembered for would be that I was a fair, caring, compassionate individual … whether it was discipline issues or any other issue that came to my office,” Limón said.
What’s more, the superintendent acknowledged that some of his decisions may have – at times – cost him favor among some in the community.
“Sometimes, decisions that were made, they were not very popular … but still, that’s part of the job,” he said, adding, “You have to make those rough decisions. But you have to realize that sometimes you’re making that decision that’s going to affect somebody’s livelihood, that’s going to affect somebody graduating or not … you have to be fair about it. You have to be consistent, and you have to be compassionate.”
Another struggle the superintendent faced was operating a district within its means – not an easy task, he said, when it’s one of the poorest in the state. Still, Limón pointed to initiatives such as the Instructional Facilities Allotment (IFA) program crucial in the district’s construction needs.
“We were able to build over $70 million worth of facilities in this district,” Limón said. “We were blessed…”
He used the word “blessed” since the state “picked up another 85 percent of the cost of those facilities” – leaving the taxpayers with 15 percent of the costs.
The facilities in SBCISD, according to Limón, are “second to none” that he would “put up against any district.”
In the case of Bobby Morrow Stadium, which opened in 2006, Limón shared an amusing anecdote.
“Our scoreboard was supposed to be ready, and it was ready like 30 minutes before the start of the (inaugural) game,” Limón said.
The scoreboard’s key components came from Holland and had been held up in Customs, thus creating a delay before it was finally installed a mere half hour before kickoff. This was also the game in which San Benito’s own Bobby Morrow, the stadium’s namesake whose gold medal trifecta at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne earned him accolades that included Sports Illustrated’s coveted Sportsman of the Year honor, was in town to help christen the facility.
“Those were the stressing parts,” Limón laughed.
Still, Limón said his main goal was always “to help students.”
“Not only those that are your A-plus students, but those that may have gone astray a little bit,” he added.
Limón has spent a total of 26 years with the district. Ten of those years were spent as a middle school principal at Miller Jordan.
“In fact, I met the love of my life there — my wife (Linda) — she was a teacher there, and I was a middle school principal,” he said.
When asked about his greatest challenge, he said it’s to be able to provide for students and employees everything that they needed within budget constraints.
“If we were to get the same amount of money (per student) that some of the richer districts get, I’d have $20 or $30 million extra every year that I could give teachers raises with – teachers deserve a raise,” he said, adding that such funds afford the district to provide for the students as well.
Another note of interest is when Limón and several other superintendents from the state testified before Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz, resulting in his decision that the school finance system of Texas was unconstitutional. It’s something Limón hopes will lead to improvements that can level the playing field.
But there was also plenty of controversy the superintendent faced, much of which occurred the last few years – 2013 specifically when the Board of Trustees, then comprised of several different members, placed him on paid suspension pending investigation.
Limón was probed for allegations that reportedly numbered more than 60, but perhaps the most notable consisted of the accusation that he blocked the Harlingen Police Department investigation into Alfredo Hernandez Jr., who in 2012 served as the Berta Cabaza Middle School choir director and was charged with soliciting a minor.
Limón has since been cleared of the allegations following a year-long investigation headed by a private outfit, but he said the situation took its toll up until his reinstatement in May 2014.
“That was a time of growth,” Limón said. “I knew I had done nothing to deserve that (suspension and investigation). I knew that there wasn’t any truth to the rumors and allegations. I knew that.
“But once that’s out there, that’s difficult to deal with … That’s where you have to have your faith in God. If you’re going through it, there’s a reason you’re going through it.”
However, Limón said he does not hold resentment or anger toward any individual or situation, offering, “You forgive, forget, and move ahead, and you keep on going … or you’re just harming yourself.”
Of his time away, Limón said, “It was hard. It was very hard … for my wife … my daughter, but it made us stronger.”
Considering his investigation, suspension and a number of highly-publicized controversies over the years, Limón is considered by some to be a polarizing public figure in San Benito, but it’s something he said comes with the territory.
“You make decisions that either make people like you, or they make people hate you,” he said. “You can’t be worried about who likes you, or who doesn’t like you – you just do what you think is right.”
In the meantime, retirement from the school district remains a possibility for Limón, but it’s something he continues to discuss with his family. “I’m sure the district will be in good hands with Dr. Puig,” said Limón. “I wish him the very best. He’s coming into a great community.”