When Boom Becomes Bust

Managing schools in communities of decline takes special management skills by David H. Smette

School administrators in different parts of the country deal with challenges unique to the culture and climate of their school districts. Most of us have something in common—we deal constantly with gains or declines in student enrollment.

Administrators should count their blessings if they are in a district that is growing within reasonable bounds or is holding its own in terms of student enrollment. Those who find themselves in a district that is losing school-age population may want to retool the skills of the administrative team to cope better with these challenges of decline.

The leadership and management skills needed for growth situations differ markedly from those needed for decline. I have worked for 24 years as a superintendent in North Dakota and Wisconsin and have experienced both scenarios: boom towns that tripled in size and doubled in school population and communities going bust after losing more of their tax base in three years than they lost throughout the Great Depression.

The major difference in my experience is that when staff must cope with rapid change during a period of decline, the culture of the organization is often adversely affected. The fallout can generate negative vibes that are felt well beyond the district walls and into the community. In a district that is growing in students and/or revenue, a positive climate usually accompanies the anticipated changes. People are able to see some light at the end of the tunnel. They pitch in to help make the changes happen. New staff with new energy are added to the equation. While running a school system in a boom town isn't without problems, at least the change process in times of rapid growth can be planned for and implemented in a fairly straightforward manner.

Forecasting Skill

Several administrative skills should be honed as one addresses the sundry issues of leading an organization through changes brought on by decline. These include skills in and knowledge of the change process, conflict resolution, the decision-making style of organizations, leadership style, power base utilization and management theory.

One of the first functions an administrator should have in place is a good system of forecasting and planning. It's important that leaders do their homework and examine projections for what will most likely happen to student enrollments over the next several years. One should also keep in touch with the legislature and the financial directions being planned. Be pro-active politically.

North Dakota schools were faced with a citizen-initiated referendum in 1988-89 that would drastically affect state funding for schools. Superintendents actively worked to get the word out to citizens and legislators as to how the drop in revenues would affect our schools. At the same time, we developed different scenarios of best-case and worst-case projections for our district, along with plans for how we would respond in our school district to balance our budget.

The statewide referendum succeeded and consequently districts across the state were forced to reduce budgets sharply. Developing the projections and planning ahead helped the process of balancing the budget that spring. A part of that process was looking down the road to determine the long-term impacts.

Should it look like the district will be facing enrollment and/or revenue declines, administrators will need to determine whether the decline will be short- or long- term. The severity also must be determined because misjudging the severity of the decline can lead to serious long-term implications for the school district, such as delaying necessary actions to keep a budget in the black. In other situations, problems may be compounded because of the delay or lack of action.

Another result of failing to forecast and plan is that the district will most likely go into a reactive response to the problem rather than being pro-active. There is a major distinction between proactive downsizing, which is planned in advance and usually integrated with a larger set of objectives, and reactive downsizing, which would be typified by cost-cutting as a last resort after a prolonged period of inattention by management to looming problems.

Long-Term Steps

Different strategies are employed in each scenario. For instance, if the difficulty is short term, the general response is probably a reduction in supplies, travel and perhaps some maintenance.

Successful strategic responses for a situation that is both long-term and severe might include:

  • A multiyear time frame,
  • A clear mission and vision of where the district is going,
  • Prioritizing of core services to be provided,
  • Reallocation of resources,
  • Changes in the organizational structure and workforce.

A multiyear time frame is needed to forecast and plan the financial and reorganizational actions. But perhaps an even larger time issue centers around the culture of the school district and how that culture will evolve as a result of the changes implemented.


Research by Edgar Schein, author of Organizational Culture and Leadership, supports the idea that cultural change is a multiyear effort. The staff and community will look to the school board and administration for leadership, especially when downsizing is occurring. School leaders should be prepared to present a clear vision of where the district is going and what core services will continue to be provided for students.

Once a school district gets into the actual process of reducing programs and staff positions, there will be the natural tendency to rally to protect those programs. This is a situation that has the potential of becoming highly emotional to participants.

In a declining district, the change process is brought about by external forces typically beyond the control of the administrator. Staff, parents and community members have a hard time understanding why revenue is dropping and why programs must be reduced. Emotional battle lines are formed as staff, parents and students fight to preserve programs or services in which they have a vested interest. There is a natural rallying of the troops to save a program or staff member in jeopardy.

The hardest part of managing decline is not in dealing with the logistics of determining the budget areas to be reduced, what programs should be trimmed or who should not be replaced through attrition. The greatest challenge is dealing with the culture of the people who remain after the reductions have taken place.

Questions arise: Who is going to take on what duties and shoulder additional burdens? What will the school actually eliminate in the curriculum and program areas? The more successful the school district has been, the harder it will be for the staff to accept the changes caused by decline.

How the board and administration communicates the need for reductions and the way in which the people leaving the organization and the survivors are treated will determine, to a large extent, whether the school system remains successful after experiencing a decline.

The Human Toll

The questions surrounding how to reallocate scarce resources in order to accomplish the vision and mission of the school are equally important. The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory has good reference material on the reallocation of school resources. (See resources.)

Because most of a school district's budget is connected to staffing, those re-allocations will most frequently mean changes in what people do within the organizational structure. The people who remain after downsizing are thus usually affected adversely by having changed duties or additional responsibilities. Those kinds of changes have a tremendous impact on the survivors of downsizing.

People will want to find someone or something to blame for all of the problems associated with decline. The most visible person who is singled out is the superintendent. Again, a pro-active response and set of strategies can lessen the stress placed on top administrators. The best tactic is to communicate the problem as early and as often as possible to staff and the community.

During the process of downsizing, staff naturally become anxious about their job security. The rumor mill can run rampant as people speculate on what may or may not happen. It is best to get that news out from the superintendent's office, even if it is bad news, as early as possible.

Each and every administrator will face additional challenges when dealing with decline. Often one of the first reductions to be called for by the public is that of reducing administrators. My experience has been that it is a serious mistake to reduce administrative staff. Their leadership and administrative skills are crucial to moving the district through decline.

During periods of decline there also tends to be a great deal more work for administrators. Throwing the administrative staff into turmoil by making reductions and then changing job assignments when they should be spending their time planning and working with school staff is a serious blow to keeping the culture positive in the aftermath of budget reductions.

The greatest burden in restructuring and reorganization of staff duties will fall on the personnel director. How that individual and the other administrators deal with people being laid off will have an impact on the culture of the organization in the following years. People need to be treated in a fair and consistent manner. Finding ways to support individuals who might be leaving the organization and those who remain is critical to how the administration and the process of managing decline is viewed by the staff who remain.

In one district we had to reduce our budget by some 8 percent. We knew the number of potential retirees we had coming up and their areas of teaching as well as the qualifications of remaining staff. We were able to make almost all of the reductions through attrition rather than layoffs. The others who were laid off were aided in various ways during their transition. We provided professional recommendations and allowed work time for resume writing and interviews. In addition, the people who survive often need assistance and support as they tackle new areas.

Better Times

The attitude with which a superintendent approaches the management of decline and change will influence how the staff and community work through the process of downsizing and restructuring.

Serving as a model for others to follow by establishing a pro-active approach to the problem, exhibiting a positive attitude and promoting a vision of a brighter future are all critical elements to ensure a quality school system in the years following decline.

Dave Smette is superintendent of the Marshfield School District, 1010 E. 4th St., Marshfield, Wis. 54449. E-mail: smette@marshfield.k12.wi.us