AUBURN — Lawrence Pelletier was recently approached by a resident of Auburn. That resident was unhappy about a recent vote and suggested that School Committee members had made up their minds about the issue and then stubbornly refused to be swayed.

“And that,” Pelletier said Wednesday night, “just ticked me off.”

It was an odd remark to hear during an open School Committee meeting, but it was exactly the kind of thing Mary Jane McCalmon was looking for.

McCalmon, of the Center for Educational Services, is a management consultant out of Portland. On Wednesday, she was summoned to Auburn to help guide the School Committee, with its new faces and changes in leadership, into the future.

The committee meeting itself, sandwiched between workshops, lasted no more than 10 minutes; the heavy topics are expected to arise later in the month. The rest of the evening was dedicated to setting goals and creating ground rules, a sometimes contentious endeavor through which McCalmon guided them.

What do you want to achieve, she asked them? How do you want to conduct yourselves as a committee?

Slowly — and then in a mad rush — the answers came.

Bonnie Hayes wants a firmer timeline on the new system of customized learning.

“I want to know where we’re going to be over the next two years,” Hayes said. “Also, I want a really firm estimate of the cost.”

Pelletier wants to tackle the topic of literacy: How, he wondered, are some students making it through the school system without learning to read?

Committee member Ron Potvin yearns for a responsible fiscal agenda. Tracey Levesque, voted committee chairwoman just a month ago, would like to see the Jumpstart Program come into play to aid children about to enter the school system.

More goals were offered to nods of agreement or to doubtful murmurs. McCalmon was just getting started.

“What,” she asked them, “are the conditions under which you can do your best work?”

Here, committee members discussed a proposed code of conduct — a manner of behaving around their colleagues and around the community at large. The goal of this exercise, and the others to follow, is to help the committee operate more efficiently, thus better serving the people of Auburn.

Former Chairman Tom Kendall hoped everyone would agree to abide by group decisions.

Laurie Tannenbaum would like to see fewer distractions at committee meetings and workshops. She didn’t cite cellphones and tablets directly, but she hinted at them.

Superintendent Katy Grondin would like to avoid making assumptions and jumping to conclusions about people or issues. Levesque hoped committee members would come to the meetings prepared, and do their research before tackling an issue. Potvin would like to see more cohesive cooperation with other boards.

More than a few committee members emphasized the importance of respecting colleagues at all times, even during disagreements. Show respect, they reminded one another, and keep an open mind.

“Tom Kendall and I are polar opposites,” Levesque said, pointing across the table at her colleague. “But when he’s talking, I’m listening. I have respect for him.”

“To me,” said Mary LaFontaine, “it’s about treating everybody with respect, and being honest.”

It wasn’t all hugs and high-fives, nor, as McCalmon pointed out, is it supposed to be. There were moments of dissent and even aggravation. One such moment came when she asked the room to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the very notion of the ground rules being set.

LaFontaine turned her thumb sideways. Kendall turned his all the way down, as did former City Councilor Mike Farrell, now a School Committee member. It’s not that they disagreed with this emerging code of conduct, those committee members insisted. For Farrell, it was mostly a matter of spending too much time on matters that had already been established, albeit in an unspoken way.

“We have a very busy budget season coming up,” Farrell said. “We need to start going forward.”

Disagreement is perfectly OK, McCalmon told them. Even well-established ground rules will be broken from time to time.

“Any one of us might fail at one or more of them, but we keep trying,” she said. “These are aspirational.”

To members of the public, of which there were only two, it might have looked like a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the workings of a School Committee. For the next hour, committee members voiced their ideas and aspirations and scrawled them on page after page of bright yellow paper.

“I would like to again make this a community where people would want to come and to stay because of our schools,” Pelletier said.

Potvin suggested more creative thinking. Levesque suggested setting time limits on some discussions. Others weighed in with their ideas: a better relationship with the City Council; collaborate with outside schools; lay a foundation for a future high school.

The bright slips of paper that held these ideas were stuck to a wall where they could be examined, discussed and voted on. Before the night was done, the committee had whittled their ideas to a more cohesive set of goals to be discussed as the year progresses.

The trick, some said, would be to hang on to what they’d learned and find a way to put it all to good use.

“Remember why you’re here,” Levesque advised. “Remember what you hope to accomplish.”

“Strategy,” offered LaFontaine, “is what’s going to drive these goals.”

Before they departed, committee member Bonnie Hayes offered a final hope for the near future.

“I don’t want to see any more yellow sticky-paper,” she said.

The others agreed at once.


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