AUGUSTA — In an effort to foster more positive cooperation during budget season, the Augusta City Council and Board of Education met Thursday to discuss the importance of civility in the process — especially considering previous years have seen a growing vein of contention.

City councilors and school board members, who have often found themselves at odds when it comes time to set the school budget, are working with a facilitator to try to find ways to improve their working relationship.

Mayor David Rollins and Board of Education Chairman Ed Hastings said that better communication can lead to positivity and increased productivity which, in turn, can help make Augusta a better place for everyone. The two groups held a joint session Thursday night, at which facilitator Craig Freshley gave a wide range of suggestions for how groups can have positive, productive dynamics between them.

At multiple points in the discussion, talk came around to the annual and often controversial school budget approval process.

In Augusta, the school budget is initially approved by a vote of the school board but also, after it is approved by board members, is reviewed and voted upon by city councilors as part of the overall city spending plan.

Nearly every budget season that dual-approval requirement leads to tension between the two elected groups. Most years at least some city councilors order cuts to the school budget, and often make suggestions on what could be cut to save money.

That’s despite warnings each year from City Manager William Bridgeo and others that the only part of the school budget that is subject to review and approval by city councilors is the bottom line, the total spending amount. How to use that money in the schools and what to cut if cuts need to be made is up to the school board.

“As a city councilor I have no authority to direct the schools on what they should or shouldn’t buy, and yet we set their budget,” said At-Large Councilor Corey Wilson. “Every year I feel sticky about it, because they’ve already done their due diligence and worked hard on the school budget. We have to respect that. But at the same time we have to do our job.”

Freshley, owner of Brunswick-based consulting firm Good Group Decisions Inc., reminded both groups in the special workshop session they each need to “stay in your lane” and not overstep their roles.

“Good boundaries work really well, and train-wrecks happen in groups because people don’t stay in their lanes,” he said. “I have a specific job and role as an elected official, and I stay within that role. If I don’t it can cause accidents in the rear-view mirror I don’t even realize are happening.”

Many of Freshley’s suggestions for building positive group dynamics between the council and board encourage civility.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said the quest for civility, if overdone, could stifle important public debate and change. She said positive change has come to society, such as the elimination of slavery, because people dared speak up against what was then the norm.

“Good groups engage in spirited and passionate public debate, I think there is a downside to all this emphasis on civility and politeness that keeps marginal voices quiet and disenfranchises them from participating,” Conti said. “If we didn’t feel we could pursue our passion, we’d still have slavery in this country. In the 1950s it was perfectly civil to call black people the N word.”

Rollins responded that speaking against something isn’t being uncivil. He said civility means if you don’t agree with someone, you can still make a counter-argument in a respectful manner.

Freshley said being civil doesn’t mean limiting debate. He said groups that work well together welcome other viewpoints.

He also said he believes as much as 90 percent of all conflict is caused by misunderstandings. And that positive group dynamics are always driven by positive behaviors and attitudes of the individuals involved in the groups.

Hastings said many people asked prior to the meeting why it was being held. He said he saw having an open discussion about how to improve relationships and better-understand how to look at things from the perspective of others was beneficial and useful. He said he looks forward to the coming year and the next school budget process, and plans to come to the hearings prepared to answer any questions councilors might have about it.

Freshley, who is expected to prepare a report for Augusta based on the results of the session, will be paid just under $2,000 for his work, according to Bridgeo.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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