The Challenges of Consolidation

The following story appeared in the October 2008 issue of American School Board Journal. For more information, including podcasts and background materials on the consolidation of the Twin Rivers Unified School District, visit www.asbj.com and www.nsba.org/natwinrivers.

The process of consolidating two or more school districts is different every time, but the same challenges arise over and over. This is caused, in large part, by the simple fact that you are merging the operations of complex organizations.

What are some other trials you may encounter? As part of ASBJ’s ongoing series on the consolidation of California’s Twin Rivers Unified School District, Editor-in-Chief Glenn Cook has spoken with a number of veterans of the process and developed a checklist of things to watch for during the first two years of a merger.

Some camps will not be happy from the outset.
Consolidation occurs for a reason, whether it’s the size of the merging districts, concerns about resources, financial incentives, or new state laws designed to save money. If everything is clicking along just fine, there’s no compelling reason to merge. “Something” has happened to upset your school community, and you must be prepared to address it, sooner rather than later.

One may feel like the loneliest number.
Change is difficult, but as we noted in the January 2008 ASBJ, it happens. Part of accepting the change is a person’s tendency to compare past experiences. If a district had more resources, a stronger sense of community involvement, or another perceived advantage over the other district(s), they will want to go back to the way it was.

It comes down to this: Even if the old way is not better, it’s more comfortable. If you need proof, count how many times you hear a phrase that starts with, “When I was in (insert name of former district)…”

Frank Porter, the Twin Rivers superintendent, says success starts with carrying out the policies set by the board. “The big challenge is to take clear policies and get them into everyone’s heart and soul,” he says. “… You can write things down, but if the organization does not have integrity and exercise fidelity in the execution of those policies, and have them in the fabric of how people behave, then they will have limited value.”

All things are not created equal.
Since resources often play a role in the decision to consolidate, chances are that you will have disparities across the new district. Salaries for teachers and principals likely will have to be equalized, which can cause some hard feelings. Facilities and technology may be lacking in one or more sections. Student assignment patterns, and the potentially ugly process of redistricting, may have to be revisited.

“I have no ax to grind,” says Linda Fowler, a school board member for 36 years and the current president of the Twin Rivers board. “I have no kids in the district and no one I want to fire. I want one governance team. I want to see the curriculum aligned so that it’s seamless, not four districts. I want the kids to have something they can actually be focused on from pre-K through the 12th grade.”

Act quickly and decisively, but thoughtfully.
Because the timeline is so short, you will not have time for a thorough superintendent search, at least at the beginning. At the same time, the selection of the district’s CEO -- and his or her subsequent hiring of key central office and building-level administrators -- can be a make-or-break move.

“This is where we get our opportunity to put new practices in place, and we get one shot at it,” Porter says of Twin Rivers. “We get to take what were previously four separate, different practices and compare those with what we know about best practices, and then put our stamp on things. This is our shift point.”