As a child in New Jersey, Phil Bancale never thought he would have 40 years under his belt as an elected school board member in Central Texas. But at age 78, he has just that, plus his own day recognizing his service.
La Vega Independent School District recognized Bancale on Tuesday for his record-breaking decades of service to the district. The city of Bellmead joined the celebration, surprising Bancale with a proclamation naming Tuesday “Phil Bancale Day.”
Bancale is not only the longest-serving La Vega ISD board member, but also the 11th longest-serving school board member in the state, according to the Texas Association of School Boards’ records on the 7,140 Texas school board members.
“I just want to say on behalf of Region 12 what a privilege it is to get to know Mr. Bancale and his great work here,” Region 12 Executive Director Jerry Maze said Tuesday. “Board service is a special thing, and it takes a person like Mr. Bancale who truly loves children as can be witnessed by his great-grandchildren here and all the children around campus.”
In 1959, Bancale joined the Air Force and moved to Texas. While stationed at James Connally Air Force Base, he met the woman who would become his wife, Lillian Mitchell. They married in 1962, sealing Bancale’s fate as a Texan for life.
“That’s what grounded me here. My momma told me, ‘don’t bring back any southern belles,’ and so I didn’t,” Bancale said with a laugh. “We’ve been back to visit of course. I’m very happy living here. Texas is a great state, and this is a great community too.”
In the ‘70s, when he wasn’t working in the meat market at Safeway, Bancale volunteered his time reading to children at La Vega schools, he said. He was first elected in 1978.
“I was reading in the class,” he said. “That’s what got me interested in joining the board, and I still read in the classes.”
On a recent bucket-list cruise of the Rhine River, Bancale picked up a special book to read La Vega students this Christmas.
“I just came back from Germany and I picked up a German fairy tale,” he said. “It’s in English of course, but it’s about Christmastime. It gives a little different spin on it. It’s called ‘The Elves of Colon.’”
Over the course of four decades serving in public education, Bancale has held many titles, including board president and vice-president, and seen many changes. The most drastic change has been a decrease in state funding for public education.
“About 45 percent of (public education) funding came from the state, and now I think it’s about less than 10 percent and the rest of that has to be picked up by the local school district through school taxes,” he said. “I mean it’s a negative thing, but it’s one of the things that happened since I’ve been on the board.”
The best way to improve the funding picture will be for voters to let state-level elected officials know it is a priority, he said.
“People are going to have to write their senators and their congressman and things like that,” Bancale said.
In his years on the board, Bancale has seen the district, which now has about 3,100 students, grow in size and stature. Every La Vega ISD school standing today was built under his tenure, he said.
His favorite part of his job as school board member comes around each May, he said.
“Seeing the children graduate, that’s a high point for us,” he said. “The school board, we give out the diplomas to the children. And if we know the child we can ask to give the diploma to the child. That’s a highlight, it really is. I don’t know them as much as I used to because it’s been so long. I got to give both of my children their diplomas and two of my grandchildren their diplomas. In fact, I was just looking at one of the pictures the other day.”
Now a great-grandfather to three children ages 12, 8 and 4 who live next door, he takes pride in what he has been part of in La Vega ISD. The district is more technologically advanced than it was when he took office, and there are more opportunities for students, he said.
“We’ve got computers all the way down to the kindergarten level,” he said. “We’re a fairly high tech district for a small district. … Our high school is what they call an early college high school. It’s where students can graduate from high school with an associate’s degree. If they take that series of courses, it doesn’t cost them a thing.”
During the school year, Bancale can be seen in the carpool line dropping off his 8-year-old great-grandchild at school. He said he hopes to be a part of the district for years to come. His connection to La Vega ISD runs deep, he said.
“My wife was born and raised here,” he said. “All my kids went to La Vega schools. Some of my grandkids have gone to La Vega schools. We have a history with La Vega schools. In fact, they say if you cut my wife she bleeds blue and gold. And now I would too.”
Tuesday night, Bancale thanked the board.
“I just would like to thank everyone,” he said. “It’s been a real pleasure to serve on the board these years. It takes seven of us working together to get things done, eight with the superintendent. We’re a team of eight. I appreciate you recognizing me like this. It’s been a pleasure, 98 percent of the time.”