This summer the prospect of a three-year contract renewal for Auburn School Superintendent Katy Grondin appeared rock solid. Then two major tremors shook the ground beneath her and led to her resignation Nov. 6, effective next June.

The first tremor was the accidental death two months earlier of her primary supporter, Tom Kendall, a long-time School Committee member who became chair in 2012.

The second was the culmination of 18 months of effort by a homegrown activist, Laura Garcia, a lawyer and parent of two students in the Auburn system. Garcia organized concerned local parents into the group Auburn Families United to push for school change and successfully pressed Grondin to disclose data on the school system’s performance.

Although it was slow in coming, data released by the superintendent’s office, along with information available from the State Department of Education, raised provocative questions about how well Auburn schools were really doing under Grondin’s leadership.

For instance, from 2011, when Grondin was hired as superintendent, the number of teachers leaving the system annually due to resignation and retirement rose steadily from 16 (of whom six retired) to 39 (of whom 10 retired). Was this a teachers’ vote of no confidence in the superintendent, or were other factors at work? It’s hard to know, since, as Garcia discovered, no exit interviews or surveys were ever done of teachers who’d departed.

In addition, K-8 reading proficiency test scores went down over Grondin’s tenure. The number of students transferring annually to private and charter schools more than doubled from 20 to 46 over the same period. Finally, Auburn’s 2017-2018 77.9% rate of graduation within a four-year span from grades 9 to 12 compared unfavorably in quantity and trend to both the statewide average of 86.74% and to many other area systems, such as Oxford/Hills, Augusta, Poland, South Portland, Turner, Topsham, Lisbon and Biddeford-Saco.

Last August, Kendall made it clear, despite resistance from two School Committee members, he was planning to fast track renewal of Grondin’s contract, currently paying $132,000 annually, which was due to expire June 30, 2020. He said he intended to complete the process before year’s end, in other words, before a newly elected board could be seated.

A contract renewal is supposed to be preceded by a performance evaluation, something the School Committee hadn’t bothered to do for Grondin’s last renewal. A thorough evaluation requires a lot of unpacking and can take considerable time.

After Kendall’s death, Bonnie Hayes, his replacement as chair, promised to slow down the process but then appeared to be doing just the opposite when she hired an attorney, without board approval, to help evaluate the superintendent. (Once informed, the committee voted 5-3 to reject the attorney). She also relegated the evaluation, including discussion of the standards and procedures to be used, to closed-door executive sessions.

Through nearly all of Grondin’s 8½-year tenure, Kendall had led a bloc of long-serving committee members, most notably Hayes, who staunchly supported Grondin like cheerleaders shouting their quarterback’s praises. As in the title of the old Johnny Mercer tune, they’d always “accentuate the positive.”

That they sought to protect her wasn’t necessarily surprising, just the tenacity with which they did so. Unlike city managers, who are typically buffeted by factional politics on the city councils that hire them, superintendents demand and usually receive the unqualified support of their boards. A school board is supposed to oversee the superintendent. Yet, its members, however well-meaning, can easily end up being co-opted by the superintendent.

Grondin views herself as a bold general who has positioned Auburn schools on the cutting edge of change. She promoted iPads in the classroom and pushed through the controversial Mass Customized Learning (MCL) system, an individualized computer-based instructional approach in which every student is left to learn and advance at his own pace, and the teacher acts less as an educational leader than as a helpful adviser in the mode of a Best Buy “geek squad” member. She also engineered approval of a new $122 million Edward Little High School filled with such optional goodies as a 1,200 seat performing arts center and artificial-turf athletic fields.

These are the kind of high-visibility projects and programs that can dazzle school boards and attract professional kudos for a superintendent. Indeed, this year Grondin received the Outstanding Leadership Award from the Maine School Superintendents Association. However, it’s been harder to discern whether Grondin’s initiatives have enhanced or degraded the performance of Auburn’s educational system, since she’s held information closely and often deflected pointed public queries with glib or even misleading responses.

Realizing that little was likely to change with the current composition of the School Committee, Garcia mobilized like-minded skeptics to vote in the Nov. 5 election. The result was that Hayes, an eight-term incumbent, was defeated by a lopsided vote of 702-280, and Patricia Gautier, another reliable Grondin supporter, lost her seat by a narrower margin.

The day after the election, in what can hardly have been a coincidence, Grondin submitted her resignation to the School Committee in an executive session which had been convened for her evaluation. Though Grondin later announced that her decision to resign was personal and not affected by external factors, the timing suggests otherwise.

If the last several months are any indication, Grondin’s successor as superintendent will have to persuade a constituency much broader than her personal cheering squad that she is improving the quality of education for Auburn students.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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