How to Know if Your School or District is Threatened with Consolidation—and What to Do About It

Last Updated: July 01, 2005

Rural Policy Matters: July 2005

Participants at a workshop at the Rural Education Working Group conference in Charleston, West Virginia, April 1–3, talked about how to anticipate a threat to consolidate your school before it is too late to stop it, and what to do about it. Here are just some of the notes from workshop leader Robin Lambert, a consultant to the Rural Trust, with a few ideas added later.

Cardinal Rule

If you are a small rural school or district, you are threatened. So begin immediately to do the things that can strengthen your school and community and will help protect your school when the threat becomes imminent.

Other Signs

  • One or more grades have been removed from your school.
  • Other small schools in your area have been consolidated (i.e., domino effect).
  • Maintenance has been ignored or avoided; your school has a major structural problem or damage.
  • There is poor administrative leadership, especially a series of weak leaders assigned by the district, or a strong principal is about to retire or leave, especially if transferred by district.
  • District-wide bus routes are changed to draw students out of your school.
  • Your school becomes economically vulnerable due to declining enrollment, rapid demographic change in the community (especially an influx of special needs students or a large employer closes, or an anti-tax revolt is being organized by anti-tax or pro-private school activists).
  • Your local tax base is weak or your local tax base is strong, but local residents do not have the economic resources to pay high local tax rates.
  • You're the poorest or smallest school or politically weakest community in your school district.
  • There is high staff turnover, especially if teachers don't want to work in your school.
    Your school "outshines" schools in more politically powerful communities-they are threatened or shamed by your schools' strong performance.
  • Any new legislation or regulation that sets a minimum school or district size, changes the school funding formula to reduce aid to small schools, offers "incentives" to consolidate, or narrows teacher certification making it harder to hire teachers who teach more than one subject.

Protecting Your Small School/District from the Consolidators

  • Don't wait until your school is directly threatened. Build a strong school and community now:
    • Work with the school to create a "place-based" curriculum that engages students directly in improving quality of life in the community, strengthening the local economy, and actively engaging people from across the community in the school. An engaged school gets and deserves public support.
    • Get involved with your school board, budget decisions, and parent/community groups. If they have to ask who you are when you show up to object to a plan to close your school, your chances of prevailing are greatly reduced.
    • Support good teachers and quality school programs. If teachers leave the school, find out why and try to prevent more of the same.
    • Establish a strong interactive distance-learning network with other schools to strengthen your curriculum. Create other inter-district networks that might include sharing of administrators or music teachers.
  • Realize that the consolidators already know that you don't want your school closed, and that you will oppose their plans. So, don't rely on testifying about how good your school is or what it means to your community. They don't believe, or they don't care, or both. Instead, strategize, organize, multiply, and get the buzz and energy in your region on your side. School boards and other public officials need to understand that the people who want strong schools in local communities are prepared to act to keep their schools.
  • Figure out what's really behind the consolidation initiative and challenge it on its own terms. If unsupported claims are made about saving money or offering more courses, challenge the consolidators to defend the claims in writing. If they offer "research" supporting their claims, analyze it for contradictions, false assumptions, and illogic. There is nothing more damaging to consolidators' plans than to be contradicted by their own words. Provide examples of consolidation failings from other states.
  • Offer alternatives that address legitimate concerns. Consolidators often build on legitimate concerns, such as high operating costs, declining enrollment, crumbling buildings, or outdated technology. You can't win by denying these issues. You need to make the case that there are better alternatives to consolidation that address these concerns effectively. If you do not, neutral people who recognize these as legitimate concerns will be driven to the arms of the consolidators by default. Role up your sleeves and invite people to help find better choices. Those might include: more inter-school or inter-district cooperation, more distance learning, stronger parental/community involvement, changes in the state's school aid formula. This wins over the neutral parties, and gives the pro-consolidation interests a way to change their mind or back down and still save face.
  • Make friends, better yet alliances, with other small school communities and with the larger communities where your students would attend if your school were closed.
    • Don't let consolidators pit you against other small school communities. Too often, communities are told they won't be consolidated if they lay low or if they let another school be closed. Very often those schools do, in fact, get consolidated anyway within a few years.
    • Help larger communities who won't lose their schools to understand that they and their students and communities will suffer from consolidation, too, through higher drop-outs, more competition for limited student activities, more discipline problems, more unhappy students, and weaker local economies.
  • Be FOR something good and CREATE A POSITIVE BUZZ. Be for strong schools and communities for everyone. Have a good plan for what you want. Go on the offensive and keep your message strong and clear. Don't get backed into a corner and portrayed as just trying to save your own school (or worse, your sports teams!)
  • Get the facts. Back up your claims with research. Use national studies (you can find a large library in plain language at, but also get as much information as you can locally. Figure out exactly what the costs will be and where they will come from. Document the real harm to children and the local economy. Put your findings in strong easy-to-understand language and formats that appeal to most people's desire to protect children.
  • Use or create media to help get your message out. If you don't have local media or if local news outlets favor consolidation, create your own media by making and distributing flyers and radio spots. Create fun public events that spread your message. Go door-to-door to talk to people about what's going on and what you want.
  • Don't rely on a local law suit. Local law suits can be a tool in a larger strategy, but they are rarely enough alone to stop consolidation. Too often there is little or no legal basis for anti-consolidation lawsuits. Unless you can prove that there's obvious malfeasance on the part of the school board or gross violation of procedural laws, you probably can't win, or at best can only delay consolidation. Worse, you might even cause the pro-consolidation activists to "hurry up" their plan. Even communities that have demonstrated substantive harm to students often find that the court is sympathetic but has no basis on which to rule for the small school.
  • Always be ethical, but don't be afraid to fight. Communities have an ethical right to educate their children in schools that are healthy for them. It's not wrong to fight, so figure out where you can put pressure on local officials and power brokers and then show that you will exert pressure if you need to. But always act legally and ethically.
  • Don't quit or get discouraged. Even if you lose your school you have shown your children that you will fight on their behalf and if you keep fighting you might get your school back.
    Run for school board or for the legislature. Nothing gets their attention like making them defend their views at the ballot box!

Got a school consolidation story to tell—do's and don't's of fighting to keep and improve your small rural school? Share it with the Rural Small Schools Forum by emailing