Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How Two Districts Managed to Consolidate During the Pandemic

Neighboring schools, a historic rivalry, and a tough sell to the public
By Noel Schmidt — August 10, 2021 3 min read
A leader looks through a telescope.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

About This Series

Over the past few weeks, we have been rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading through a crisis. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

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.

Complete Collection

Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management How Principals Use the Lunch Hour to Target Student Apathy
School leaders want to trigger the connection between good food, fun, and rewards.
5 min read
Lunch hour at the St. Michael-Albertville Middle School West in Albertville, Minn.
Students share a laugh together during lunch hour at the St. Michael-Albertville Middle School West in Albertville, Minn.
Courtesy of Lynn Jennissen
School & District Management Opinion Teachers and Students Need Support. 5 Ways Administrators Can Help
In the simplest terms, administrators advise, be present by both listening carefully and being accessible electronically and by phone.
10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion When Women Hold Each Other Back: A Call to Action for Female Principals
With so many barriers already facing women seeking administrative roles, we should not be dimming each other’s lights.
Crystal Thorpe
4 min read
A mean female leader with crossed arms stands in front of a group of people.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management Opinion Want a Leadership Edge? You Already Have What You Need
School leaders are faced daily with challenging situations. Here's how to prevent the tail from wagging the dog in responding.
Danny Bauer
4 min read
Screen Shot 2024 04 05 at 5.35.06 AM
Canva