Sometimes, conventional wisdom needs to be thrown out the window when engaging the community in anticipating a larger crisis. The Rock Ridge community in Minnesota experienced this in a small way around a major school district restructuring effort during the pandemic.
In 2019, two districts launched something that didn’t involve life and death but was still ambitious. That spring, the Eveleth-Gilbert and the Virginia districts—two ancient, rival, rural, and neighboring school systems in the northern part of our state—held separate and simultaneous public bond elections. The voters were asked to approve bonds to build together one new high school and two new elementary schools. At the time, I was superintendent of the Virginia district.
A year later, as the pandemic exploded, the two districts agreed to consolidate into one through another round of separate but simultaneous public votes. These were two districts that had been archenemies for over 125 years. Historically, adults wouldn’t shop in the other community. High school students rarely dated students from the other district; fights often broke out. This was a tough battle.
How did we get the public to agree to the new consolidated district of Rock Ridge? We planned for it. Instead of leaving the question of how two separate districts could operate one high school until after the building opened, we discussed it in advance.
Between the two community votes, we engaged the public in determining basic questions about the new school, in case the districts consolidated. What would the school be called? What about its mascot and colors? Through a series of very public Survey Monkey questionnaires, we narrowed down the possibilities from hundreds of options to a small handful. Then, we put the final decision to a vote, open to everyone, including students.
Next, during a hockey match between the districts in February 2020—not long before COVID-19 began rapidly spreading across the country—we rolled out the winning name, mascot, and colors. The hockey captains, surrounded by 100 little kids, skated around the ice holding a new banner in the new colors touting the winning name: Rock Ridge Wolverines. Cheerleaders moved through the crowd, handing out free T-shirts, beanies, and cups printed with the new school name, mascot, and colors.
This simple act was immeasurably helpful during the consolidation vote in both communities just three months later. With the emotional decision about a new school name, the mascot, and the colors already settled, the vote passed. If we had waited, the consolidation vote would have probably failed, and we would have had to manage two sets of books for two separate school districts during the chaotic early days of the pandemic.
What lesson does this provide for continuing to deal with COVID-19 or future crises? The major one is the urgent need to plan before a crisis hits. School leaders need to ask themselves today: If a future crisis in our district is so severe that we are driven from our offices, what do we need to do to meet the needs of our community? How will we ensure the safety of our children and our staff? How will instruction be delivered? What about meals? Do we have protocols in place in case routine communications by mail, email, or messaging break down? How do we stay in touch with other local and state units of government?
These questions can go on endlessly. District leaders and parents should sit down together and puzzle through all the many complications that could arise if things go dramatically sideways.
In other words, get your act together before disaster strikes.
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