Feature

Mergers, Annexations, Dissolutions

Whatever it’s called, school district consolidation can try superintendents’ souls and test the limits of rural community pride. by Alexander Russo

Things are going much better than expected with the school district consolidation that’s taking place in Corning, Ark. Created from two separate districts in 2004, the newly expanded system has about 1,200 students and covers 400 square miles. There are two secondary campuses, one each for the old and new districts, and three elementary buildings, two in the new district and one in the old one.

Most logistics have been worked out. Community concerns have been addressed, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, the superintendent who once headed the smaller of the two districts and oversaw the consolidation has kept his job.

What makes this situation all the more remarkable is that the consolidation wasn’t done voluntarily. Arkansas passed contentious legislation in 2004 mandating consolidation for any district with fewer than 350 students. With just 230 students at the time, the Biggers-Reyno district in northeast Arkansas had to consolidate. It wound up merging with the neighboring Corning School District and its 1,000 students in the summer of 2004.

The merger took place with minimal disruption, according to superintendent J.M. Edington, who previously ran Biggers-Reyno. “We kept things operating just basically like they were, but had just five campuses instead of three. There was already choice between the two high schools. It was not really hard at all.”

As he considers the rough-and-tumble experiences of many of his colleagues in other parts of the state, Edington admits, “Ours is close to being an ideal situation.”

A Heavy Burden
That may be quite an understatement. District consolidations are rarely smooth, according to superintendents and school management experts, who cite sports rivalries, socioeconomic differences, salary ladder variations and transportation logistics as common challenges.

When the two districts involved are about the same size, tremendous struggles often ensue over which can gain the upper hand through membership on the combined board of education and over appointment of the top district leadership, according to those who have gone through the experience. When the districts are of different sizes, representatives of the smaller districts often express concerns about lost financial and instructional autonomy, as well as loss of flexibility.

Any of these can make for a difficult transition, whether the merger is happening independently or being forced on two communities by a state mandate. Nearly everyone interviewed for this article agreed that planning for, carrying out and successfully wrapping up a district consolidation requires a heavy additional commitment on the part of the superintendent and the central administrative staff — assuming they survive the process.

School districts aren’t the only ones who struggle with consolidation issues. In Arkansas, the state Supreme Court special masters recently expressed their dissatisfaction with consolidation efforts there. Lawmakers in Nebraska only recently decided not to revamp their consolidation law, which is under legal and political attack.

District leaders who have experienced a merger often share the same bittersweet joke: “What’s the hardest animal to kill in the world? A school mascot.”

If current trends hold, a lot more school mascots are going to face extinction. Since 2000, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Virginia have all enacted policies related to district consolidation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. News reports suggest that Maine, Illinois and Iowa are also places where consolidation remains an issue.

While no one keeps exact figures on the number of districts consolidated each year, according to Marty Strange, policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, now a new wave of state-mandated consolidation efforts is taking place in several states, fueled by a number of factors, including population declines and debates over equity and adequacy of state education funding.

“Whenever legislators get involved in a school funding debate, almost the first thing they say is ‘If we’re going to put more money into these schools, we’re going to make sure that they’re operating efficiently,’” Strange says.

Schools Follow
To rural school advocates like Strange, district consolidations are just the beginning. “Let’s not be naïve,” he says. “District consolidation always starts out being about getting rid of expensive superintendents, but it’s also about clearing away the political infrastructure that supports small schools.”

School consolidation almost always follows, says Strange. “District consolidation is the shoehorn for school consolidation,” he says. “When you close districts, you come back later and close schools — no matter what they’re saying now.”

Consolidations come in all shapes and sizes, including mergers, annexations and dissolutions. They don’t all take place under state mandate, however. A handful of districts consolidate every year in some states like Illinois that have large numbers of small districts, many of them dual districts that serve K-8 or 9-12 in the same geographic area.

“These small populations are very difficult to support financially and educationally,” says Bill Phillips, a retired Illinois superintendent who has served as a consultant on many consolidations. According to Illinois state officials, there are 874 districts in Illinois, which has no mandatory consolidation program. The state had 31 more school districts in 1997.

Fiscal Rationale
The reality is that few local boards of education decide to consolidate willingly, and many do it for financial rather than educational reasons, according to school district leaders.

“I wish I could say it was an educational decision where people realize their students need a better, more comprehensive education,” said one retired superintendent who did not wish to be named. “Normally it’s fiscal things.”

Financial considerations include skyrocketing tax rates, difficulties retaining teachers in remote communities and direct or indirect pressure from the state. Potential benefits include lower tax rates, negligible increases in travel time for students and improved academic offerings and stronger sports programs.

As a result, district leaders facing consolidation are likely to experience a number of challenges — political, logistical, financial and otherwise. Not the least of which is keeping a job.

While there may be no such thing as a perfect consolidation, there are, according to those who have gone through it, several strategies that can help ease the most likely headaches.

Some of these strategies are as simple as making sure to show your face as much as possible among stakeholder communities and keeping everyone informed, even as the planning process and chronic conflicts work to keep you tied to your desk.

“You need to be someone who gets out among the people,” says Edington, the Arkansas superintendent. “You can’t sit in your office and make it happen. People want to see you, they want to talk with you. Your employees want to talk to you, both before and after.”

Edington and the other district superintendent involved in a recent consolidation decided early on to meet with each of the younger teachers who were going to be excised, tell them what was going to happen and do their best to find jobs for those losing positions. “Don’t let them read in the paper that they’ve been dismissed,” he says, adding that the goodwill generated from the personal meetings was well worth his time commitment.

In addition, several experienced administrators recommended sending home with students a series of letters about the status of the consolidation, holding special meetings for parents and reaching out to those outside the school community, especially senior citizens and business leaders. Student and parent surveys can be a helpful way to gauge community needs and to document the necessity of future change.

Some superintendents defuse the mascot debate by inviting everyone to submit ideas and then putting a selected (and supervised) group of students from both schools in charge of picking a mascot. “If you do it that way, it’s pretty hard for parents to come out and say the kids made the wrong decision,” says a superintendent who has used this strategy several times.

Logistical Tactics
Communicating effectively is not all that it takes. A district consolidation plan has to be extremely well considered as well. Nearly everyone agrees that careful, detailed planning is essential.

Some states provide funding for feasibility studies that are completed either by the districts considering the merger or by an outside consultant. However, these studies vary widely in quality and comprehensiveness, according to experts like Phillips who have participated in several consolidations in Illinois. A good one can make all the difference. A rushed or incomplete one can create enormous concern and slow or stall the process for months if not for years.

Anticipating and then dealing with logistical issues can be a big help. Little things like getting computers networked and sorting out new bus routes become very frustrating, even though many superintendents are experienced in these areas.

William Grizzell, superintendent in Lincoln County, W.Va., which is currently reorganizing four small high schools and closing an elementary school, launched a comprehensive planning process. He’s quite clear on how to approach the sensitive matter. “Bring consultants in. Evaluate your current facilities. Show everyone the statistics.”

Grizzell, who has been running the 12-building district for five years, says it took an extra level of analysis to demonstrate the need for a school merger in his county. Even though course offerings at the four small high schools appeared to be reasonable, Grizzell had to demonstrate that students were being forced to make difficult choices due to scheduling limitations and the lack of sufficient sections of popular subjects.

“There were really not enough electives to give the kids the required curriculum,” he says. “Kids were being knocked out of their career programs or not getting the chemistry and foreign language they needed for college.”

Through careful analysis, Grizzell also found that the state’s facilities plan didn’t account for the fact that elementary school children take more space than high school children. The state plan called for several of the high schools to be converted to K-8 sites. “We had to redo some of that and leave two schools open that were scheduled to close,” he says. “There just wasn’t enough room.”

Fortunately, Grizzell adds, he and his team figured that out early enough to prevent chaos.

Unlikely Savings
One point of widespread agreement among superintendents who have been through a consolidation process is that cost savings should not be the main point of emphasis — and may not even materialize. That’s because salary increases are sometimes required for central-office staff whose workload may grow substantially following the merger.

In northeast Nebraska, Randy Nelson, superintendent of the 3,960-student Norfolk Public Schools, foresees increased spending when his district absorbs six smaller surrounding school districts this summer. While the addition of 350 students will carry per-pupil funding and additional tax revenues, Nelson expects to absorb $200,000 a year in new salary costs. The increase in personnel spending is necessitated to bring the salaries of the roughly 35 teachers in the other districts up to Norfolk’s pay scale.

In addition, he can’t close schools unless all the parents are willing to transfer their children, which creates additional costs for long-distance transportation. There won’t be any tax cuts, the superintendent says, because the districts already operate under a common levy.

“I think the silver lining is that from a statewide level [the consolidations] will bring more efficiency,” Nelson says. “But in our case, at least initially, it’s not going to help us (financially) at all.”

Once the multi-district consolidation is completed, the newly expanded Norfolk system will be responsible for busing 1,400 students who are spread across 340 square miles. With 35 bus routes already, fuel costs will be enormous at their current prices. “Transportation is an unbelievable challenge,” Nelson concedes.

In Arkansas, Edington says his district hasn’t fared much better in terms of cost savings a year into his merger beyond the elimination of one administrative salary. Now facing a building closure, he is going to try to absorb positions and avoid a reduction in staffing.

Delicate Politics
Rural politics can be especially delicate when a proposed school consolidation moves forward. School board members and lifelong community residents need to cooperate when making such sensitive decisions as the uniform colors for the athletic teams and the boundaries for school attendance.

“You’ve got to make everybody realize that now we’re in this thing together,” says Bureau Valley, Ill., Superintendent Rick Stoecker, whose district absorbed four others nearly a decade ago and who has been through the consolidation process several times in the past.

Stoecker says the important message to share publicly is this: “We’re one district now.” He adds: “Everybody’s opinion counts, but not everybody is going to get their way.”

It is important not to underestimate parent concerns, even if they are as small as worrying whether their child will have a chance of being a cheerleader or making a sports team in a school with expanded enrollment.

Being able to see things through parents’ eyes can be a great help, says Joel McFadden, a retired superintendent who has personally experienced and studied district consolidations in Illinois. “Most people, the two questions they want to know is what building is my kid going to attend school and how is he or she going to get there,” says McFadden. “They just want to know. If they see the advantages, then they don’t care whether the kid rides the bus another 10 minutes.”

It’s equally important to ensure the students are clearly informed about what’s transpiring. Some educational leaders have done outreach to students to share with them the likely benefits of a forthcoming consolidation. Though school rivalries and community differences almost invariably will be raised as objections, they say students can be quick to see the academic and social advantages of a new, combined district. Administrators with merger experience report it takes surprisingly little time for students to assimilate with their new classmates.

Others caution against over-promising anything to avoid being accused later on of backing out of something. None of the superintendents interviewed claimed to be able to prove that student achievement would rise under a newly expanded operation, and few were confident cost savings had been significant, despite the widespread use of such rhetoric as a rationale for consolidation. Many have had to close or reconfigure campuses shortly after the consolidation period.

Board Relations
When it comes to maintaining positive relations with members of two or more school boards involved in a merger, there are no simple answers. A consolidation almost always means new board members or a mix of the holdovers, either immediately or soon after the next election. In Norfolk, Neb., former board members from the small districts that are being consolidated will run for office starting this spring.

“My board’s going to change,” says Nelson, the superintendent. “I don’t know what will happen.”

Even when one of the two superintendents involved in a consolidation loses his or her job, the surviving superintendent can find it hard to stay on afterward.

“It’s pretty tough to keep the job,” says McFadden, who has studied consolidations in Illinois. “You’re making a lot of decisions. You become the focal point of everything.”

McFadden was an exception. He ran the Lanark, Ill., district for eight years before serving as head of the consolidated district, renamed Eastland, for seven years after the merger. He’d been through three other consolidations before that.

McFadden and others say that usually the superintendents involved just move on and get a new job. In other situations, superintendents accept new roles as building principals or assistant superintendents, sometimes at higher salaries than they had before. Others use the structural changes to retire.

As a result, it can be extremely useful to anticipate and plan for things getting noisier and less orderly. Sleepy board meetings can turn into loud, raucous events when consolidation is being discussed, and district leaders need to be prepared to take steps to ensure the process remains civil, even as all have a chance to express their views. Proper procedures should be followed so key decisions can’t be challenged down the line.

This can be as simple as keeping detailed records of all decisions and reminding participants of the need for decorum at the start of a meeting. At times, it may be appropriate to assign a security officer to the board meeting — as at least one superintendent was forced to do recently for a public meeting on a proposed consolidation.

Personal Protections
Superintendents also should prepare themselves for the worst by protecting themselves contractually, says Paul Sellon, superintendent of the 320-student Hamburg, Iowa, Community Schools.

Until 2005, Sellon was the shared superintendent for two adjoining districts near Omaha, Neb., that decided to reorganize in the summer of 2004 under financial pressure. On the job since 1999, Sellon had enjoyed a good relationship with both boards until the merger planning process created enormous tensions and contentious debate.

At least some of the turmoil was pretty much guaranteed to happen, Sellon admits. “A shotgun marriage isn’t as pretty and fun and as nice as a real one,” he says. There was the usual opposition to reducing staff, and the consolidation eventually involved roughly 20 staff buyouts and early-retirement incentive packages.

But then things got much worse. Sellon’s cost-savings proposal to eliminate boys’ baseball was met with a small but intense wave of anger from some parents, even though there was not enough money to support student activities. “That was the turning point for me,” he says.

The final straw came when Sellon and his board members were assailed by a group of hostile parents (and eventually the local newspaper’s editorial page) for spending district money to attend a national education conference. “I knew then and there that the tide had turned,” says Sellon. “They couldn’t let it go.”

Last June, Sellon was asked to leave the newly renamed Douglas County West Community Schools. Fortunately, he had renegotiated his contract before the merger process began, knowing from previous experience that things could go downhill pretty quickly. “I told the board here’s what’s going to happen,” says Sellon. “They didn’t believe me.”

It all came true, and Sellon received two years of severance pay for his foresight. “I wrote it tighter than all get-out,” he says. “Have good legal counsel.”

Alexander Russo is a free-lance education writer in Chicago. E-mail: alexanderrusso@gmail.com