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California School Fiscal Services

Providing comprehensive business office and consulting services to K-12 traditional schools and charters



Lessons Learned from Unification - Author: Donna Rose

Posted on July 15, 2014 at 10:25 AM Comments comments (1125)

Most of my fellow USC graduates, and fellow CBO’s will probably never face a unification head on like I did this past year. The process of taking two separate entities and joining into one new unified K-12 District is both exhausting and exhilarating. Imagine that you have the opportunity to be part of a process to recreate your District with new thoughts and ideas. A new name, new logo, new stationary, new org charts, are just the initial trappings, but they can lead to new concepts on what you want to be, who you want to be, how you envision your program, hire staff, develop goals and actions. In November 2012 the voters of Santa Paula (small town of about 30,000) decided that the S.P. Union High School District should unify with the S.P. Elementary School District on July 1, 2014. Our newly Unified District is 9 schools, with 5500 enrollment.


I will not give all the gory details of the 7 month period to prepare for the start of the new “unified” district. If any of you are interested, email me and I will certainly share! I will ask you to use your collective experiences to think of all the things that you would have to consider if you were asked to start a new district and you had no staff to do it with (I was the only official employee for 4 months!). Neither of the existing superintendents were chosen to be interim (no interim was hired for several months), and the governing board choose an outside Superintendent in June to start July 1. It was challenging to say the least.


But this blog is about lessons learned. Recently I was challenged by my boss to draft some notes on what we have accomplished in our first year, and think about our goals for year #2. It got me thinking about how to effect big changes in organizations. Unification forced rapid and fundamental change on our new district. On the natural however, structure, culture, and organizational routines reflect a persistence to stay with what has been done in the “past”. How many times have we all heard “this is how we have always done it”. In our Unification process this was an issue, because the separate districts each had very different cultures, and often different ways of “doing it”. To effect big change, and implement a new “we are unified” culture has been goal #1 for this first year. LCFF and LCAPs’ came on top of unification, and forced even more upheaval. In a perverted way LCFF and LCAP couldn’t have come at a better time for us! If you have to change your organization in a major way, sometimes it seems to me that you might as well have to upend the entire way of thinking and doing business to get where you want to be.


Our new Superintendent came on board from another district. Our executive cabinet has equal representatives from the former two districts, and my fellow Assistant Superintendent of Education, like me, was only with the former elementary district for 2 years prior to unification. This combination of people with experience outside Santa Paula, and not years and years of “this is how we have always done things” mentality, has been instrumental in the ability from the top down to effect change. We needed to merge our cabinet first, and make sure that all of us have the same agenda, same goals, and same message. Developing the LCAP required that we spend lots of time together, and the Asst. Supt of Ed Services and I would joke that we are now two peas in a pod! We have a relationship of mutual support and respect that translates to our staffs, and is evident to the employees. Lesson #1!


From day one our mantra has been “WE ARE UNIFIED”, and we do not tolerate the “us” versus “them” type of talk or actions. Our Superintendent has also turned a 3-2 board into a 5-0 board (most of the time!) and that is quite a feat. The need to have the message start with the Governing Board, and be clearly heard at all board meetings was an important step in the on-going process. Lesson #2: The message has to come from the top to the bottom with consistency!


Changing culture is like trying to steer a big ocean liner. It won’t happen fast! But the change is happening. We successfully merged our financial systems and got our employees paid. We successfully merged 4 separate union contracts into 2 new contracts (AFT and CSEA). Our leadership team is coming along. Although we still see a divide among employees at different program levels, there is new dialogue about calendar issues, articulation, curriculum planning, and definitely about the new LCFF/LCAP plans. The collaboration on the LCAP that needed to take place at all levels has distracted from the unification issues, and focused attention on what our programs should be, could be. This has created a platform for the conversations that unite us, rather than divide us. New initiatives, new excitement for increased funding to implement them, have generated such a high level of optimism about what our unified district might achieve moving forward, that the angst, anger, and resentment that unification was going to destroy the existing cultures has almost disappeared. There is a new image of Santa Paula Unified taking hold. Lesson #3: Make sure the organization hears about and gets excited about what is going on. Get everyone involved where you can.


Last but not least: Since this unification was pushed onto the Districts by the community, the community has been extremely vested in its success. The LCAP process required the community involvement in the planning for the new funding, and this provided the perfect vehicle to get them to take notice of the new level of collaboration within the district. Our District went overboard on having meetings: 6 stakeholder monthly meetings, over 20 meetings held at school sites, community organizations, public places, 2 public hearings, 3 board workshops etc. The local newspaper assisted in getting the word out as to how the citizens could give input via the meetings, website, surveys etc. The resulting feedback is a feeling that the current board and administration cares about what the community cares about, and is listening to the needs and concerns. Lesson 4: Get the community support and buy-in for your district initiatives.


We still have a ways to go, and getting our employees all on the same page is the main goal for year #2. They have merged the union leadership, and have a new contract in place, but they still do not understand the needs in different areas of the organization: mainly high school versus elementary. We will make progress on this, and any help or advice from those of you with unified districts will be appreciated!