A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A district’s difficult decision
Key considerations for when declining enrollment necessitates school consolidation
By Camille Ramos-Beal | November | December 2023
Enrollment and fiscal realities within school districts may result in the difficult but necessary decisions to close schools. This article provides valuable insights and reflections on the process of school consolidation. Drawing from the experiences of Pomona Unified School District, this article explores key considerations and highlights the importance of effective communication, stakeholder involvement, and post-consolidation strategies for healing and fostering a cohesive culture.
School consolidation is an uncomfortable topic to discuss. It involves making difficult decisions. Our district was in declining enrollment prior to the pandemic. The pandemic exacerbated financial hardship among families causing families to move and find more affordable places to live. Each year, Pomona Unified experiences a decrease in enrollment. These realities have led to the first wave of consolidating schools in our district. It is realistic to expect more consolidations to take place. I was a teacher and site administrator of the consolidated school for 17 years. During the year leading up to the school consolidation, I was assigned the responsibility of principal at both the school being consolidated and the school into which the other school would be consolidated. I decided to write this article to share learnings from the complex moves during the consolidation process.
Research studying the pros and cons of school consolidation explains that school consolidation is a strategy to reduce operational costs (2008, p.2). School consolidation is a means to decrease money spent on the maintenance of facilities and the combined administrative and instructional staffing could result in financial savings (Dolph, 2008). School consolidation was a difficult decision for our district leadership and board of education. Key considerations for the decision is the district’s declining enrollment and the cost of funding over 40 schools. Pomona unified declined in enrollment by 11,891 students over the past 16 years and according to district projections, anticipates 1,300 student loss by 2024-25.
Table 1.0 shows the school district’s enrollment counts since 1996.
Table 2.0 illustrates the student enrollment in comparable districts and the number of schools that are in operation in that district. A neighboring district with more students had fewer schools in operation than Pomona Unified; another district with 600 fewer students had 18 fewer schools in operation. This table was used to illustrate the feasibility of reducing the number of schools in operation with the existing student enrollment.
Pomona Unified defined consolidation as: The process in which we are closing existing school sites and relocating that site’s students, staff and specialty academic programs to another nearby PUSD campus. Pomona Unified consolidated three schools: two elementary schools and one 7-12 Academy. The consolidation process was publicly announced in January 2021. The decision was finalized with the school board’s approval of consolidation in April 2021. At that board meeting it was determined that the 2021-22 school year would be used to transition and that the consolidation would be completed by June 2022.
Our district leadership met with staff during virtual staff meetings, hosted parent meetings online, and allowed for public comment about consolidation during the board meetings. The vote to consolidate three schools was approved; however, for all three schools the board voted to take one year to transition to closure.
The following year of transition was painful; however, it was a process that allowed for staff to process the transition and for logistical considerations and arrangements to be made. These logistical considerations and arrangements include:
Accessibility: Are there schools nearby? Is the alternative option a feasible option for families to safely walk?
Legalities: What do our contractual agreements say? What do the CDE guidelines for school consolidation recommend?
Maintenance and operations: What is the capacity of the campus? What condition is the campus in? Cost of moving? Site repairs?
Programmatic: Where would the special programs/signature programs of the school be redirected?
Planning and budget: There must be a plan with timelines for consolidation related movement and a budget to support the additional staff to support consolidation work, i.e. movers, consolidation consulting company. What does educational research recommend?
Staffing: Where would the teachers be transferred? Which schools would receive the teachers? What does the contract say? How many vacancies are available?
Stakeholder involvement: How was the community informed? How were parents and students part of the decision-making process?
District leadership partnered with consultants and used the CDE guidelines for consolidation to guide the school consolidation work.
Key points to consider about school consolidation are the impact of school culture when combining staff. Effiom (2014) asserts that the consolidation process challenges community identity for teachers and students and “Can engender hostile intergroup relations; Can threaten community cohesion.” (p.45)
Dolph recommends that in order for school consolidation to succeed, open communication is necessary 2008, p.4. Effiom (2014) emphasizes strong communication to help stakeholders understand the process. He argues that the success of consolidation is dependent upon communication that is timely, comprehensive and repeated in many media formats. Effiom warns that without strong communication, “[M]erger syndrome can result in decrease of communication” and result in rumors and distrust (p. 54). Dolph recommends that in order for school consolidation to succeed, open communication is necessary (2008, p.4).
School consolidation is a logistically and emotionally challenging experience; however, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, student enrollment in 2022-23 decreased by 5 percent, or more than 310,000 students, since 2019. Our district and many others might have to consider school consolidation in the future.
Studies on the effectiveness of school consolidation have been inconclusive and dependent upon the school and district context (Gordon, 2015). This article offers varying stakeholder perspectives in a consolidation process. The following were interviewed: Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, Director, Principal, Assistant Principal, Office Manager, Teacher, Student, and Parent. The interview questions were:
  1. What were the factors considered when selecting schools for consolidation?
  2. How were stakeholders involved?
  3. Describe the consolidation process from your perspective?
  4. How did the consolidation impact you?
  5. What was the total cost of the movement? What were the moving parts?
  6. What went well? What would you do differently?
The interviews were insightful. The curated subset of responses are included to provide multiple perspectives:
Superintendent Darren Knowles shared that consolidation is hard because you have some people that have been working at these sites for years. It’s emotional. Families, kids, the emotional connection, that’s the hard part — to hear the stories and impact is hard. The length of time makes it tough. Think of what support we can make available to staff. The impact on culture is significant. (D. Knowles, personal communication, Sept. 27, 2022) Assistant Superintendent of Maintenance and Operations Fernando Meza indicated that the consolidation generated savings of approximately $500,000 per site on staffing alone. However, hindsight is 20/20 — there’s the logistics of bringing students together. Overall, very few staff went into the consolidated school. Actual cost for all three schools was approximately $100,000. Having a logistics team would have saved us some heartache. Planning needs time. The new facilities need to have the functionality that signature programs need. From an emotional standpoint, I understand it is traumatic. I would recommend SEL support and grief counseling. A transparent plan with a roadmap would be helpful so that stakeholders are not feeling powerless. (F. Meza, personal communication, Oct. 3, 2022)
Director of Secondary Monica Principe emphasized the importance of transparency. She recommends listening to the voices of the stakeholders and get input. A strength of our process is that we had really good, open lines of communication. We had a strong leader in place. A veteran principal to the site was extremely helpful. The ability to have the relationships and confidence to speak openly and honestly and make educated directions together. Not all decisions were liked by all stakeholders, but we did consider all voices. What I think we could do differently might be the timeline, we extended for a year and a half after the announcement of the consolidation. (M. Principe, personal communication, September 27, 2022)
The vote to consolidate three schools was approved; however, for all three schools the board voted to take one year to transition closure. The following year of transition was painful; however, it was a process that allowed for staff to process the transition and for logistical considerations and arrangements to be made.
Assistant principal: As a co-administrator at the school to be consolidated, my job was to help support teachers in continuing with focus on student learning and then the logistical helping with closing out the year. We received an additional year to close out the school. It was very sad. The consolidation impacted the morale of teachers, students and parents. Seeing classrooms being moved. Colleagues transferred. I would check in on the teachers daily. See how they were doing. Listen to them. While it was stressful at times, there were moments when it was uplifting: our staff rallied together because of the relationships that were built and because of the commitment to students. (T. Littlejohn, personal communication, October 13, 2022) Assistant principal: The impact of the plans to consolidate students and staff into our campus was minimal because most students elected to go to a different site. The staff and students that did come to our school acclimated to different norms, culture, expectations. We got through it; recognize that there are people who rose to the occasion to help with the process; many showed their flexibility and grace. (A. Tan, personal communication, October 17, 2022) Office manager: I wanted to make sure that everyone that was coming knew that we wanted them, that this was not a dumping ground for them and making sure that the kids that were coming felt welcome because it was a new environment. (A. Avila, personal communication, November 14, 2022) Teacher: Our school consolidation was devastating for teachers and for students. We built such a strong community that it was hard to accept. It was hard to see half of my co-workers go and to see the students leave. Our side of the hallway was empty. I didn’t know where I was going to go and what I was going to do, and there were a lot of unknowns for myself and the other teachers. I miss my students that I don’t have this year and I miss my coworkers. I felt a little deserted out there. In a lot of ways, it did bring teachers closer together. (M. Diamond, personal communication, February 6, 2023) Parent: Parents were included in the meetings with the board and the parent meetings. In my perspective, parents were not given much of a choice or options in trying to stay at Palomares. It impacted me, my family, and my son most importantly. We had to transition to a new school in his senior year. We were involved in Palomares for five years. This would have been his sixth year. I believe what went well was that we were all able to unite and have a big voice at the school district. We were able to say what it meant to us and prolong the closure a little longer. Help us be part of the decision making from the beginning. (E. Flores, personal communication, April 10, 2023) Student: I didn’t like the idea of the school being closed down because I was new to the school and I was still getting used to it and I was still getting to know the people there. I had to start all over again and get used to this school. (J. Gomez, personal communication, Feb. 10, 2023) As the principal of the consolidated school and now the school we were consolidated into, I found the process to be emotionally difficult. I had to process my own grief about leaving the school where I was originally hired. The reflections of our experience and the insight from the interviews reveal that much planning is required to consolidate a school. If I had to go through it again, I would ask for more notice ahead of time and for stakeholders — teachers, staff, parents and students — to be part of the discussions about consolidation prior to consolidation in order to understand how they will be impacted. I would ask for a shorter implementation period, not prolonging the consolidation an additional year after the decision is announced. (One year from announcement to closure with stakeholder input from the beginning of the process.) Our site held monthly parent meetings where we intentionally included in the agenda any consolidation-related information and timeline of what was going to happen next. We were most focused on the impact on students and the community. We should also have scheduled monthly meetings updating the teachers and staff and providing more formalized opportunities for them to ask questions. I would recommend providing grief support and/or other opportunities for stakeholders to process school closure. In our school, our art teacher/PBIS coach (school culture) went into each classroom and had students and staff create artwork of their favorite memory of the school on hanging tags. These tags were hung on a wooden frame and then presented at a schoolwide farewell rally. Post-consolidation, I would recommend intentional planning of activities to heal and bring people together. How will we help teams become cohesive? How will we show value for the existing culture? How will we intentionally build relationships in order to build trust? As I reflect upon our consolidation a year ago, as challenging as it was, the work was manageable because we worked as a team. My supervisors were available to listen to my questions, concerns and suggestions. My administrative team was extremely helpful, supportive and unflappable. I am extremely grateful for the loving and caring people who supported our school community through the process. Having reliable, communicative, accessible and supportive people made all the difference. References Dolph, D. (2008). Coming Together: The Pros and Cons of School Consolidation. University of Dayton Educational Leadership Faculty Publications. https://ecommons.udayton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1217&context=eda_fac_pub Effiom, C. (2014). Principal Experiences in a School Consolidation. (Doctoral dissertation, USF Tampa) Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/etd/5214 Gordon, M. (2015). A Study of the Impact of School Consolidation. (Doctoral dissertation, University of St. Francis) Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/docview/1735491538?pq-origsite=gscholar&fromopenview=true Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means. Eric. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED515900.pdf Camille Ramos-Beal, Ed.D., is principal, Village Academy High School and program director, Pomona Health Career Ladder, Western University of Health Sciences.