Features

Surviving Closings and Consolidations

The secret may be an open attitude and a healthy dose of public input by Brad Hughes
First-year Superintendent Mike Gray of Hancock County, Ky., got an unusual assist in gaining community support for a $27 million facilities upgrade plan that included closing a school: A wing in another building was condemned as unsafe.

Paul Fanning got an even stranger boost during a divisive facilities planning process that will consolidate several schools in Floyd County, Ky.: A two-year extension of his superintendent contract.

Both school systems shared the oddest lift of all: expanded construction bonding authority from the seemingly cash-strapped state legislature. The funding came with a catch, however. It was available only to school districts that formally committed to replacing specific outdated buildings.

Citing reduced state funding, lower local revenues or declining enrollment, at least 10 Kentucky districts either closed or consolidated schools or have considered such actions this year. And Bluegrass state administrators aren’t facing these decisions alone. A simple Internet search on a single spring day produced news stories of school closings and/or proposals to close in 22 states.

School leaders take few actions that can evoke the levels of passion like closing a school, says George Cawood, a consultant with the Kentucky School Boards Association who works with districts to comply with the state’s Local Planning Committee process. “That’s one of the toughest things because every community considers that school to be the center of the community, and if you remove the school, you’re removing the heart of the community,” he says.

“The only way to counteract that reaction is to do a lot of research and use the data to show how it will benefit students from curriculum offerings, nicer facilities or savings in terms of maintenance,” Cawood adds. “But sometimes, you can get all that data out there and it still won’t change the attitudes in the community.”

Clarity of Purpose
Five years earlier, Hancock County Schools, with its 1,560 students on the Ohio River in west Kentucky, underwent a facilities planning process that failed on multiple levels: an inaccurate assessment of needs, an unworkable timetable for action and no community buy-in. However, the discovery in April 2002 that a crumbling wall made an entire wing of Hawesville Elementary School unsafe for use became a catalyst for reform.

“Part of our success was just luck, because having one-third of that building condemned put us in a crisis mode in terms of people’s mentality that we couldn’t put this off another couple of years,” Gray says.

Hancock County leaders decided to take plenty of time in developing the new plan. “We were not in any hurry because we knew the issue of consolidation was one where we had to have all of the questions answered,” he said. “We sat down with paper and pencil and gave people facts and figures. That was a key—factual information.”

A series of forums, above and beyond the state-required public hearing, became critical. “One key was that we broke people down into small groups a little bit differently in every meeting, so that people wouldn’t be working in the same group each time,” Gray says. “We also had the meetings on neutral ground, at churches, not at the schools themselves.”

In Floyd County, a 7,000-student district near the Kentucky-West Virginia border, hard feelings over an earlier school consolidation process still linger, says Fanning, the superintendent since 1999. The state rejected the original facilities plan, citing too much underutilized space for the district and its declining enrollment. Ultimately, the success of the second process—which calls for consolidating high schools and K-4 elementary schools—rested on two points, Fanning says: a clear purpose and an open, credible process.

“We went above and beyond the required public meetings,” he says. “The committee took time to give everyone a forum to have their say, and that was part of why it worked.”

But a greater impact on public support came from the credibility that Floyd County’s Local Planning Committee built. “People came to the meetings and saw that everyone was working with a purpose. Plain old grunt work,” Fanning says. “Were the discussions vigorous and contentious at times? Yes. But the meetings were open to the public and the press, and people came and saw a committee with high expectations for themselves and for the final plan.”

In the end, Fanning says, “Some people came up and said, ‘We don’t like consolidation, but to be able to offer our children opportunities that they’re having a difficult time obtaining now in a small school setting is something we understand we have to look at.’”

Cawood has worked with five school districts this year on facilities’ plans that include closing or consolidating schools. He advises school leaders to build a cross-section of the district into the early discussions.

“You need to have a mix of people, a diverse representation because whatever the solution is, it’s going to affect the whole district, even if the consolidation is only in one area,” he says. “If you come out with a plan first without getting that part of the discussion, you’re going to have problems. Don’t say, ‘This is what we’ve got to do.’ Say, ‘Here are our problems and here are some potential solutions. Please look at this and give us some feedback.’”

Peace in the Process
Administrators leading a school closing or consolidation decision-making process should have two goals: making the decision and surviving the aftermath. Here are some proven leadership ideas that can help:

* Compile a comprehensive report on all data to be used in the decision.
Credible, understandable data comes first, not just in selling the final decision. This may include but not be limited to the current cost of operating each school building (cost of building maintenance, staffing, transportation, average daily attendance funding, supplies, utilities, etc.), the future cost of necessary or planned improvements at each school, enrollment history at each school (growth/decline patterns), a comparison of the total cost per pupil of education at each school, and a comparison of instructional offerings available and not available to students at each school. Both the Floyd and Hancock county school systems produced brochures with the relevant data and mailed them to every household in their communities at the start of the process.

* Plan meetings with all staff at each school that could be affected by the decision.
It’s important that all staff members have a clear understanding of the situation, options and data regarding their school. A meeting at each school will allow the superintendent to detail that information, answer questions and compile a list of staff issues to be considered by the administration and the board.

* Host tours at each affected school.
Invitees could include PTA members, the school board member from that division and representatives of local government, the chamber of commerce, the ministerial association and other appropriate community groups—so long as the final group is not so large as to make it difficult for all to see and hear the tour information and get answers to questions. The tours would give these community leaders first-hand knowledge of the factors involved in the decision before the school board. Bring along the local press to show both the situation at the school and to demonstrate how decision makers are examining needs.

* Meet with concerned citizens at each affected school.
The purpose of these meetings is three-fold: to inform the community of the factors involved in the decision, to answer questions and to give the board and the superintendent a sense of community questions and concerns. You may choose to have an initial meeting to present the information and listen to questions and concerns, then follow up with another meeting (prior to final action) when district staff may outline some possible solutions to issues raised in the first meeting.

* Never say never.
Until a decision is made, avoid a total rejection of any single option. Listening never hurts. Don’t make judgments without the facts. And once a sound decision is made, don’t get mired in slothlike inaction by fiery public reaction. Continue to make your case.

* Spend time educating your local news media.
School closings are news, even if there is no organized opposition. And when there is opposition, don’t let those folks frame the situation that the larger community will read, hear and see in the media. Go beyond just simply informing reporters of meetings. Sit down with representatives of media outlets just as you begin the public process. Give them an outline of the process and the data. During breaks in meetings where decisions are being discussed, approach your reporters and ask if they have questions you can answer.

* Produce a transition plan for students.
Parents of students being required to change schools will have all sorts of questions and concerns: transportation, length of the bus ride, lack of familiar teachers and staff, lack of familiarity with the building and campus, location and response capabilities of emergency medical personnel and so forth. You may wish to develop a student transition plan covering these and other areas of interest to parents; schedule special open houses at these “new” schools and extend invitations to the parents whose children will attend; have new bus routes and schedules printed and available for the parents; and make available lists of any staff transferring from one school to the other.

* Keep listening and responding after the final decision.
The responsibility of the superintendent, the administrative team and the school board doesn’t end with the final decision. The school system must remain responsive, open and willing to examine previously unanticipated issues that arise from the final decision. This doesn’t mean reopening debate or reconsidering action that was necessary and appropriate. It simply means recognizing that issues and questions will come up that had not been anticipated earlier in the process and that deserve attention and possible action even after the decision is made.

* Remember a tough but sound decision benefits from a tough but fair debate.
When school leaders actively engage the community on decisions of this magnitude, the decision makers have a much greater opportunity to tell their side of the story, such as why a decision must be made in the best interests of children as well as taxpayers. This is one case in which a message of “It’s About Kids!” may not be enough. You probably won’t welcome the controversy, but the result is that more people will understand more about your final decision when the whole story is put to the community.

Brad Hughes is the director of communications services for the Kentucky School Boards Association, 260 Democrat Drive, Frankfort, KY 40601. E-mail: bhughes@ksba.org