Understand the state requirements for a consolidation process. Meet with state level policy makers and state level consultants who have guided other districts through a consolidation to ascertain all that is necessary for a successful effort. Ask about legislation regarding consolidation types, referenda, resolutions, tax rates, bonded liabilities, board elections, transportation, and possible state level incentives. Many states will have documents available that will guide districts through such an extensive restructuring effort.
Gather public input. Use surveys and open public meetings to gather as much feedback as possible from all constituents. Create a website where stakeholders can view information and post questions. Have one individual serve as the primary keeper of the site, but make sure that all committee members have a chance to provide feedback regarding content and questions posed. People are more likely to support a consolidation plan if they have been included in the process.
Develop a committee of constituents to guide the process. Illinois requires districts that are considering a consolidation to appoint a Committee of Ten, a group of individuals who are tasked with gathering and examining data, receiving feedback, and making recommendations regarding the possibility of consolidation. The Committee of Ten is authorized by statute to gather and examine data and make recommendations on a variety of items, which includes curriculum, levy, general staffing needs, efficient use of facilities, placement of students, use of state incentives (if any are available), transportation, and similar items. The Committee of Ten does not establish salaries, wage schedules, or benefits. Those items will be determined by the elected Board of Education of the consolidated district in negotiation with the teacher’s association.
Develop and publish a schedule of activities. Use the information gathered from all the sources (state, local, public, etc.) to develop a month by month schedule of activities to be undertaken. Publish the schedule for all to see, so they may participate. Stick to the schedule. If any variation is required, be sure to inform all involved and republish the revised schedule of events.
Keep people informed. Throughout the entire process, strive for transparency and maintain open lines of communication. The public will want to know what is taking place. Where authentic information does not exist, the community will fill in gaps. Social media often becomes the source of choice, so be sure to set up websites and create accounts on social media sites specifically dedicated to the process. Keep those sources current.
Take the Message to the People. Identify key groups within the community that can be addressed in a personal fashion. Civic and service organizations, fraternal organizations, and churches all number voters among their members. Reach out to these groups and offer to meet with them on their turf and on their terms to share the vision for the reorganization and address questions. In addition to addressing these formal organizations, identify and address the informal groups within your community – those who regularly gather at the coffee shop, hardware store, or pub – to share information and address their questions. Personal contact with as many members of the public as possible increases the chances for success at the ballot box.
Maintain focus. Regardless of how well aligned districts may be or what level of collaboration may already exist, the committee processes, meetings, interviews, reviews, and activities related to a consolidation can wander into areas that are irrelevant. Inform those involved in the process that items not directly related to the consolidation but still important will be addressed in a more appropriate venue.
Know the impact of collectively bargained agreements and multi-year contracts. When two districts merge into one, staffing assignments are often made in accordance with collectively bargained agreements. The most senior staff members should be placed into positions first due to tenure laws. Muddying the waters of tenure are statutes that require evaluation rankings as part of reduction in force lists. Make sure all personnel are properly evaluated and use those documents when making staffing decisions. Additionally, salaries in the new district are often taken from the highest salary scale. Be sure to calculate all fiscal projects using the highest salary schedule for the most accurate picture of the reorganization impact.
Prepare for opposition. All of the financial data may clearly indicate the districts are heading for a fiscal cliff. All of the curriculum data may clearly indicate the districts are not meeting the needs of the students. All of the community input may be overwhelmingly supportive. Opposition will arise. Often it will be loud and will provide completely false information. Unfortunately, some will choose to believe the opposition. The opposition may be unprofessional and take to social media to preach its message. Be mentally prepared for this. It can be taxing and there may come a time when it is in your best interest to NOT respond.
Anticipate the unexpected. Once communities and districts begin walking hand-in-hand toward consolidation, expect the unexpected. Administrators are offered new positions and take them, while others become ill and step down. Teachers move into new positions, leaving gaping holes in already struggling curricular areas. Coaching changes impact the political climate in one or both districts. Storms hit and damage buildings. In spite of all the good will and preparation, things like this will happen. Continue to build in contingencies for every possible scenario as you are best able, because you may need to use them.
Stay positive. In spite of challenges and the occasional hostile opposition, stay positive. Focus on students and work tirelessly to improve opportunities for them.