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March/April 2013

The ‘relevance paradox’ of school reorganization
by David M. Mills

David M. Mills is superintendent of Jasper CCSD 17 in Fairfield, Illinois, and an adjunct professor of educational administration at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He is also a member of the inaugural cohort of the Illinois School for Advanced Leadership.

Twenty-five years of school reorganization efforts by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is a tale of two perspectives: one logical and the other emotional. The logical perspective is rich with efficiencies and incentives from on high; the emotional perspective from the field is ripe with attachments and challenges.

The top figure at right is a word cloud generated from the text of three boilerplate school reorganization feasibility studies issued under ISBE guidelines in the last decade. The bottom figure is a word cloud generated from the text of three qualitative studies that catalogued community reactions to school organization in the Midwest in the last 25 years.

When juxtaposed, these two word clouds illustrate a stark contrast in perspectives for school reorganization. Moreover, they represent a paradox that would appear to be irreconcilable. But as Sergei Korolev, architect of the Soviet space program, says about difficult circumstances and situations: “There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem.”

The solution rests with understanding and addressing the “relevance paradox” inherent in change and complex systems — like school reorganization.

A “relevance paradox,” as explained by financial advisers The Calverton Group, occurs when individuals, professionals or groups of professionals are unaware of essential information that could guide them to better decisions or help them avoid inevitable, unintended or undesirable consequences. Lacking the information, they don’t see its relevance, so they don’t seek it. They only seek information and advice they thinkthey need as opposed to what they actuallyneed to meet their own or the organization’s goals.

What is the “relevance paradox” in Illinois school reorganization?  

Feasibility studies preach what community stakeholders need to hear about the efficiencies of reorganization (beans, basketballs and buses). However, community stakeholders pray for what they actually need to build the capacity to reorganize (trust, flexibility and empathy).

These two conflicting views must be reconciled so that the feasibility study rationale and stakeholders’ emotions are on the same page.  

By the numbers

Between 2002 and 2012, ISBE awarded approximately 115 school reorganization feasibility study grants to 281 school districts. During this time, statutory reforms were enacted to better facilitate reorganization referendums between multiple districts, and reorganization incentives were expanded to include joint high schools.

These initiatives, combined with poor state and national economic conditions and declining enrollments in many districts, should have generated strong interest in school reorganization.  

However, an analysis of ISBE funding disbursements does not support this assertion. The advancement rate of feasibility studies to a referendum for reorganization of any type was only 28 percent.

Randy Dunn, who was Illinois state superintendent of schools from 2004 to 2006, reviewed the above data and said: “What we’ve done so far, in my view, hasn’t exactly accomplished what needs to be accomplished in Illinois.”   

The most telling analysis of statistics germane to ISBE school reorganization feasibility study grants dealt with the success rate of school reorganization referendums during this 10-year period.   Of approximately 30 school reorganization referendums in Illinois, 24, or approximately 81 percent, were successful ballot measures.  

The search for truth

The highly successful advancement rate of reorganization referendums passing between 2002 and 2009 became the foundation for a quantitative casual-comparative research study conducted in 2010. Answers were sought to the following questions:

• Where has the reorganization process faltered?  

• How could the feasibility studies be improved so districts were better prepared to manage change?

• What happened differently in reorganized districts that participated in the feasibility grant program and saw the process through to a successful referendum?

For the purpose of the study, nine school districts were identified from 241 school districts that participated in the ISBE reorganization feasibility study grant program. They were subdivided in two groups by region and status.

For the region subgroup, three districts were indentified from each of the following parts of Illinois: northern, central and southern. For the status subgroup, three districts were indentified from each of the following reorganization outcomes: stalled study, failed referendum and successful referendum. All of the districts contacted were small- to medium-sized with student populations PreK-12 less than 1,200. All of these districts served rural and remote communities of less than 2,500 people.  

Nick Osborne, a principal ISBE reorganization consultant and professor at Eastern Illinois University, has identified the following six steps that a complex system passes through on the way to change:

• Sensing the problem

• Gathering data to confirm suspicions

• Analyzing the data

• Engaging in individual dispositional dialogue

• Engaging in group dispositional dialogue

• Entering the “spin zone” to either retire the issue or to pursue change

This working concept of change was very applicable to this study and helped to further subdivide the study into three phases of leadership:

• Logical (the first three steps where the argument for reorganization is made)

• Emotional (the dispositional dialogues where the grief process is dealt with)

• Transformational (critical mass is put to the test in the spin zone to either retire the issue or pursue change)

In short, each phase works in conjunction with the others to build the capacity for change as illustrated in Osborne’s Continuum of Change graphic on page 23.

Those who were superintendents in the districts at the time of their reorganization feasibility study were contacted in spring 2010 and agreed to participate in a survey to gauge their district’s experience. The survey instrument was on-line and divided into four components:

• General demographic information about the school district for cross analysis purposes;

• General perceptions of the district going into, during and coming out of the school reorganization feasibility study;

• Identification of stakeholder responsibility and effectiveness in the three realms of the Continuum of Change (logical, emotional, transformational) throughout the school reorganization feasibility study;

• Reflective commentary from the superintendent respondents regarding his or her experience in a school reorganization feasibility study.

Where it’s faltering  

Districts that had stalled studies and failed referendums relied, almost completely, on administrators or board members to navigate the emotional elements of fear, loss and grief when it came to preservation of both their community and school. It appeared as though the Committee of Ten, the statutory group appointed to represent the community throughout the process, was an afterthought once the feasibility study was complete.

This is where selecting a credible, confidant and influential Committee of Ten, early on, becomes so important to the reorganization process. Findings from successful reorganizations show that the Committee of Ten can best shoulder the responsibility of building the capacity necessary to pursue and achieve reorganization once the board applies for a feasibility study and the principal consultant reports the study’s findings to the community.  

Three consistent themes through both subgroups emerged as recommendations to improve the process:

1. The research suggests that more attention to the process of change be considered when working with the myriad of stakeholders involved in school reorganization;

2. The research specifically suggests that guidance in building community consensus for reorganization is vital to the success of a referendum; and

3. The research shows the community appreciates an explanation and understanding of the conditions causing the need for a reorganization feasibility study prior to the delivery of final study findings.

The research also indicates that a practical significance exists in districts that saw the process through from study to a successful referendum in the “logical” and “transformational” realms on the Continuum of Change. In the “emotional” realm, successful districts experienced similar difficulties as those where a study stalled or referendum failed. But what differed was the degree of effectiveness of stakeholders working to effect change.

The Committee of Ten in this study’s three successful reorganizations took on the bulwark of the emotional and transformational tasks involved, and shared this responsibility with the community. In those districts, the theme of reorganization as a means to preserve community identity dominated the dialogue and was shared by the stakeholders throughout process.

Keys to successful reorganization

The research also suggests three keys to unlocking successful school reorganization: illustrating reorganization as a means to fortify community identity in changing demographics; selecting a credible and influential group of wizened heads to serve on the Committee of Ten to represent the school and community early in the process; and having the primary stakeholders in a reorganization effort understand and accept their roles and goals on the change continuum.

Superintendents who participated in the study were quick to add quotes to their commentary supportive of reorganization as a tool for community identity:

• “The sum of the whole is greater than its parts.” — Aristotle

• “All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.” — Adlai E. Stevenson II

Another aspect of understanding a school’s role in maintaining community identity is through the study of place attachment. Methods exist to measure community place attachment and can help elicit an understanding of what the driving role of a school is. Is attachment to a school functional and based on dependence or is attachment to a school emotional and based on identity?   Helping a community come to terms with both changing demographics and understanding the attachment to their school goes a long way in brokering peace in a time of grief.   

The most influential group of stakeholders in a school reorganization, the Committee of Ten, has no professional representation to provide them guidance or support. Every stakeholder in the process from faculty/staff to administration to board of education to regional office of education has both a professional organization and ISBE to lean on. The Committee of Ten has no parent organization; therefore, it takes a very unique individual from the community to serve in the capacity.

Great lengths must be taken to ensure the right people are selected to represent the community. Methods exist to identify community power structures and should be used by school boards and administrators to find those who can bring the capital of credibility and influence to the table.

Additionally, it is important to look at school reorganization more as a process than an event. An analysis of community power structures may need to take place a couple of years prior to a reorganization feasibility study and initially take on the structure of a community collaborative committee to address the broad spectrum of changes that education reform will have on rural school and community partnerships.  

Rural and remote communities in the Midwest face a triple threat of:

•  rapid depopulation,

•  the failure of an agriculture-industrial-energy economy to produce the same level of middle income jobs as a generation ago, and

• heightened social and emotional problems.

These threats have thrust communities into some difficult conversations about survival.   Only part of this dialogue is about the reorganization and consolidation of schools.

Former U.S. Senator Paul Simon, in his book Our Culture of Pandering, wrote about difficult conversations and he didn’t mince words on the conscious incompetence of many leaders to avoid confrontation on major issues: “Pandering is not illegal, but it is immoral. It is doing the convenient when the right course demands inconvenience and courage.”

It is imperative that the fate of rural schools remain a matter of local control. District administrators and boards of education must begin the process of researching alternatives, making projections, identifying people of influence and credibility in the power structure of their community, building the capacity for informed decision making, and engaging stakeholders in meaningful dispositional dialogue about change.  

In Leading Change, Douglass Reeves provides an excellent cautionary metaphor about making difficult decisions:

“It is not possible to make a perfect decision when leading change in a school. Education administrators must choose between which calculated mistake they will make in the best interests of the students under their charge. The first mistake is to enact change with evidence that is not perfectly effective, which makes you vulnerable to short term criticism and complaining of cynics. The second mistake is to fail to act in light of evidence, which exposes your long term judgment to those you were entrusted to help and failed.”

All things considered … what calculated mistake will your district choose to make for the next generation?

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