Apr 21, 2024

New challenges for Scarborough, Maine

Higgins Beach in Scarborough, ME | Corey Templeton
Higgins Beach in Scarborough, ME | Corey Templeton

Scarborough, Maine, is a fast-growing coastal Southern Maine town. With growth comes change and with change comes both prosperity and heightened divisiveness among residents. Some of the sharpest divisions have emerged over school policy. The recalling of several school board members over disputes related to personnel, educational policy, and school start times a few years ago left a lingering feeling of distrust and enmity — not only among different factions in town, but also residents and officials. 

We now have a new dispute centered around the question of how to accommodate predicted growth in enrollment of elementary-age children in our aging and already overcrowded facilities. Actions to address this concern were put on hold during the pandemic, but about a year ago a new committee was formed to research the situation and recommend a solution. The proposal it arrived at included consolidation of the three existing elementary schools into a new school to be located within the new and highly controversial mixed-use development in the center of town. This seemed to some a reasonable proposal, but to others an outrageously costly and poorly thought-out idea with a preposterously high price-tag. The proposal went to referendum where it was soundly defeated, with two-thirds of voters saying 'no'.

The Town Council and administration was then left with a conundrum. Everyone agreed that current facilities were inadequate, but it was unclear how to devise a new solution that would solve the overcrowding problem and be supported by a majority of residents. It became clear to my colleague and me (both of us are experienced mediator/facilitator professionals) that, before a new committee could have any hope of success, its members would have to undergo some trust and bridge-building. We approached the people we knew on the council with some ideas for a way to at least begin that process. We believed there needed to be a way for the ‘no’ voters to feel that their concerns and opinions had been heard and taken into consideration. We also knew that the committee (which included a few school board members) had spent almost a year studying the situation and crafting the proposed plan, and many members were feeling burned and defensive. After a few rounds of discussion, they agreed to the meeting agenda we proposed.  

The agenda brought together about 35 residents, almost equally divided between supporters of the plan and those opposed. Town officials were there as participants — not as presenters, but to listen and learn about residents' thoughts and concerns. We began by dividing attendees up into 3 groups, depending on where they were on a scale of 0-10: 0-3 being opposed, 7-10 supportive, and 4-6 somewhere in between. There was some push-back (as there always is), but eventually people did what we asked them to do. Each group then talked about why they felt the way they did and, after presenting their recorded notes, each group could ask one question of another group or of a town official. For many, this was the first time they had heard the anger and mistrust from the 'no' group.  As in so many situations, most of us only know and talk to people who think like we do and are dumbfounded when we hear from those who have different views.

We then created mixed groups and tasked them with listing the things they did and did not want in a school system. Following ground rules to 'listen to understand' and 'speak to inform rather than challenge or convince,' each group was able to create a list of things that most in the group could agree on. All of these notes were captured.

Though this was just a start to the work to be done, both to solve the school situation and to build trust within the community, the feedback after the meeting was uniformly positive. Many of the more ardent naysayers left with a sincere gratitude and belief that they had been heard and respected. Several subsequently applied to be on the new committee. And everyone came away with a warm sense that we all live in a community that cares about one another.

Dana Morris-Jones, (Ph.D. University of Wisconsin) has been consulting for-profit, non-profit, and public sector organizations for the past four decades. Her work is focused on creating and supporting collaborative cultures that depend on skillful value-based leadership. Her book, The Power of Difference; From Conflict to Collaboration, was published in 2016.

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