As he’s wont to do, Elon Musk pulled up Twitter on his phone one early spring morning and fired off some breaking news.
“Am donating $20M to Cameron County schools & $10M to City of Brownsville for downtown revitalization,” he wrote in the March 30 tweet. “Details to follow next week.”
The billionaire SpaceX and Tesla CEO, aspiring Mars colonizer and last weekend’s SNL host, was referring to the South Texas community where he’s built a SpaceX launch site. And by local standards, the amount is stratospheric—in fact, it will likely be one of the largest private donations that these schools have ever seen. The median household income in the area is about $38,600, according to U.S. Census data.
Musk has expressed his desire to turn the unincorporated hamlet of Boca Chica Village, close enough to SpaceX that rocket launches might shatter windows, into the city of Starbase, Texas. The donation, to be given through his Musk Foundation, is part of his plan to build up the futuristic workforce he needs.
Over in Los Fresnos, a small city about 30 miles east of SpaceX, Superintendent Gonzalo Salazar, saw the tweet. Just like other officials in the school system, he first learned about the massive donation along with Musk’s 54 million Twitter followers.
Soon after, Salazar found himself in a meeting with the Musk Foundation, presenting a list of the district’s needs. “The next day or two days later, they were asking us for routing numbers,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Locals are getting more acquainted with Musk’s unconventional approach. Since SpaceX broke ground on the Brownsville site in 2014, Musk’s plans have evolved from a site to launch commercial satellites to a hub for manned space travel. And Musk’s off-the-cuff tweeting has landed him in hot water, including a $40 million fraud charge settlement and a separate defamation lawsuit.
Salazar says reactions from locals have run the gamut. Some wonder what the company expects in return, but he is confident the partnership will benefit his students and the region.
“They are simply making an investment in the community. What they want is to see proven results,” he says. “There’s a little bit of awe, some speculation, excitement and some people going, ‘How neat.’”
School districts in Cameron County have reported receiving a combined total of about $5 million so far for STEM and career and technical education programs. Amounts vary based on enrollment and percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Brownsville ISD, the largest school district in the county, received more than $2.4 million.
Deputy Superintendent Anysia Treviño said the donation will help Brownsville ISD meet its long-term goal of increasing the number of students who pursue science careers. It will fund professional development, hands-on STEM curriculum and afterschool programs to build students’ interest in fields like computer science. The district wants to prepare students for internships during high school, she says, and for careers including electric vehicles and robotics.
“This donation was really unexpected—and so needed,” Treviño says. “For BISD and the population of kids that we served, it doesn’t come every day, or even every year.”
Up the road at Los Fresnos CISD, Salazar says his district received just over $624,000 from the Musk Foundation on April 19. The funds will help expand the district’s college readiness centers into its three middle schools. The district is also repurposing a middle school building into a career and technical education center, where students can work toward certifications during the day, and adults can take classes with local college instructors at night. Los Fresnos CISD has an enrollment of about 10,600, and 80 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, he says.
“Representatives [from the Musk Foundation] explained Mr. Musk works on a very different timeline, as evidenced by the manner in which they made the donation,” Salazar says. “I say to people, God works in mysterious ways and all blessings come through him, and he works through philanthropists and community organizations.”
Musk has his share of critics in the region. Some worry about the impact of SpaceX on the surrounding wetlands and housing affordability. After all, the company has issued public calls for help locating debris from explosions when its rockets fail. Several groups held “Sabado Night Live” on Facebook to protest during Musk’s SNL appearance.
But such criticism hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm from school officials, or their hopes for how the funds can improve their STEM programming.
It’s a significant donation for Los Fresnos, Salazar says, especially considering the funds are just the start of what the Musk Foundation seems prepared to dole out. While the foundation didn’t provide hard and fast deadlines for when the schools must report back to the foundation on how it is using the money, Salazar says it wants to see progress before releasing more funds.
A couple days before Musk announced the $20 million donation, Salazar was on a tour of SpaceX. His hosts ended the day by musing that children in middle school today would be the ones colonizing Mars, so they wanted students to experience the tour tomorrow. Salazar thought it was a figure of speech, until he turned to leave.
“They grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘When we said tomorrow, we mean tomorrow,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘What time do you want them here?’ Knowing full well that it’s 4:30 in the afternoon. We need permission slips, we need buses, we need meals.”
The next morning 70 students showed up, with permission slips in hand, ready to board the school bus to SpaceX.