VENUS – Bobby Matthews looks out over the field and just smiles. A backhoe digs down into the earth pulling up four feet of soil at a time and loading it into trucks that haul it away. More than half the field is already gone and it’s only the second day of work at Venus High School.
There’s a bit of poetry in the scene Matthews is staring at and he knows it.
“Our image of Venus is not the best and everyone knows it but it’s up to us to do something about it and we are,” Matthews said. “It’s a lot more than just a football field to us.”
Matthews, the Venus ISD superintendent, can’t help but get excited when he talks about the changes coming to the small community on the border of Ellis and Johnson counties. Growth is happening. Progress is in the works. Things will be different. To many, it’s just a football field. Not to Venus.
Blame soccer. Or rather blame the kids who wanted a soccer program as the reason last Tuesday was necessary.
For years, the Venus athletic department had avoided the sport. But as the community grew, specifically the Hispanic population, it became clear there was a desire for the game.
When he arrived two-plus years ago, Matthews came up with what he called a “Dave Letterman spinoff” of a top 10 list of things the students, faculty and staff wanted to seen at Venus. The number one thing was a soccer program from the students’ perspectives.
Venus was already one of the smallest 3A schools in the state and soccer is far from easy in the UIL league. The Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs would be lumped into the 3A-4A soccer classification and forced to play schools like Kennedale and Alvarado whose population size was well higher. Still it had to happen.
“Soccer of course came to be but of course we have to play 3A and 4A,” Matthews said. “We’re excited about what soccer is going to do for us.”
But just like any action, there was a consequence and the victim was the school’s playing field. With the rigors of football and soccer seasons, the natural grass surface took a beating. The dirt turned to almost concrete. The grass stopped growing as thick as before.
The new sport expedited the process of installing turf. But it wasn’t the only factor.
Venus’ track also runs around the outside of the football field. For years, using the track was almost a non-factor. Then came an interest surge. Then came success. With both came the need for vast improvements.
If the track program was going to get any better, the pothole covered surface needed to be redone and fast. It was another task Matthews was happy to add to the process.
“We had nine kids out for varsity track two years ago. This year we had 50. We hope to double that in two more years,” Matthews said of the track program. “Our JV boys won the district track meet and being in a district with Kennedale and Alvarado and some of these people it’s very good.”
Elevating the status quo
Every district in the state of Texas seems to be feeling the effects of the recent budget cuts. Venus is no exception to that rule.
Still, Matthews didn’t find selling the idea of improvements all that hard.
“People here want this town and this community to improve and the support is here,” Matthews said.
The district cut $1.2 million last year. Matthews and his staff are already looking into possible cuts for next year. That process began some six months ago.
Slashing budgets and rising student populations are in contradiction of each other on paper but Matthews is committing to making it work.
When the district was evaluated two years ago, enrollment for the whole district had gone up two percent. That number only figures to grow as things move along. It’s the biggest reason Matthews is working so hard to make things better.
Matthews cites a “healthy fund balance” as the biggest reason the district has been able to do this work. The cuts are going to happen but the improvements are also a must, especially if the district wants to become an attractive place for people to send their kids.
“We’re going to have enough money to survive the cuts in Austin, pay for all this. We’re just playing catch-up in Venus and we’re just trying to do some really good things,” Matthews said.
Turning the corner
Buddy Hardin told his players about the new turf they would get to play on next fall. You’d have thought he was Santa Claus.
Hardin, Venus’ football coach, described the scene as “giddy” with players “jumping up and down” over the news. There was plenty for the kids to celebrate but Hardin looks at things from a different angle. The improvements are so much a way of making things better as they are a way of recognizing the players’ efforts.
“The main thing is it shows our kids that we care. We care about them,” Hardin said.
The football field will be the most noticable change but it is far from the only one.
Matthews points out that the school’s tennis courts were refurbished last year thanks to a generous donor who happened to be driving by and see the need. New lights were installed so matches could be played later in the day.
He also discusses the district’s purchase of a 15-acre farm in the county as a positive step. The farm could get bigger sooner and for good reason – the students are requiring it.
“We had two kids showing in the county show two years ago. This year we had almost 80. We’ll do that again in two more years, we know that,” Matthews said.
While the current high school classes might not be all that big, the reality is the elementary and middle school classes are fairly sizable. Some of the current high school students will reap the full benefits of the district’s vision but those younger children will be the main benefactors.
Matthews hopes this is just the tip of the iceberg. He sees improvements to the baseball and softball facilities, paving parking lots and school expansion all in the future.
It will take a while to get to step two. For now, he’s just enjoying step one.
“It’s a great start, Matthews said. “We’re just trying to make a lot of needed improvements.”
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