SHIRLEY -- "It's the budget that will never end," joked Ayer Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock, as he introduced the topic at the June 19 school committee meeting.

But the subject at hand, potential cuts to the district's "down to the bone" Fiscal 2014 budget, was no laughing matter. At issue was the request of the Ayer and Shirley finance committees and town officials that the district make additional cuts to its budget to "share the pain" of a $338,263 increase in Ayer's school operating assessment over that of Fiscal 13, and a $381,343 increase for Shirley.

The town of Shirley already approved $350,000 of its increase at its May 20 annual town meeting, leaving a gap, based on the higher budget estimates at the time, of $55,472. The town finance committee later voted to support that increase through a $55,000 transfer from the town stabilization fund, subject to a majority vote at the June 26 special town meeting.

Since then, the estimates based on an update of the proposed Senate budget have changed, bringing Shirley's budget gap to within $31,343 of its assessment.

That still shifts approximately $150,000 of the school assessment increase from Shirley to Ayer, Mock said. And town officials were now asking the district to reduce the burden on Ayer by cutting its own budget.

"We have gotten the very clear message that whatever the school committee can do to lower that amount would be greatly appreciated and would generate even more support from the local finance committees," said Mock.

"Generally speaking, we were asked to do what we could do." The figure recommended, he said, would be a $75,000 reduction in the school budget.

"Earlier this year (Shirley FinCom Vice Chairman) Mike Swanton had proposed a plan after which we were asked to propose some cuts. We considered $225,000 in cuts, but since then there are a number of things that have been on our watch list and we have gotten that number down to $75,000," he said.

After going through a list of potential expense reductions and revenue increases that brought the total net decrease in the school assessment to $75,000, Mock said that the district's "best estimate as of today" in terms of the certified budget number was just shy of a $100,000 increase for Ayer as compared to the figure the district put on the table in January.

"And in Shirley, where at town meeting they approved $5.3 million, a $350,000 increase already, we are still about $31,433 short of that that would have to come out of stabilization. So that's about $50,000 less for Ayer than the last estimate."

"If you thought these adjustments were appropriate," he said, "then when we went to town meeting next week, once the warrant articles come to the floor, then someone from the school committee would move these numbers. It would come up with an amendment that includes the total number for that town."

"I think it will be easier to find $31,000 than $56,000," said Swanton, reminding the committee that a vote to move the monies from the town stabilization fund would require a two-thirds majority vote.

No Wiggle Room

School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly, who said that he could appreciate that the increase to the towns is considerable concerning cuts in state aid in recent years, also voiced his concerns that the district had used up its reserves for the year.

"We increased our own revenues by about $25,000 by raising lunch prices, so we took action to increase the fee to try to alleviate the situation," he added.

"From my perspective, I think it is about as good a compromise as we could come up with," Mock responded.

Committee member Jim Quinty was adamant that, with the district's reserves just about exhausted and a sewer project for Lura A. White Elementary School looming in the near future, "I think overall we can cause more damage by doing this than we can help...I think this is going to be a much more serious thing for us than for the town, so I'm not inclined to support it."

"We have been good stewards over the years and overall have saved a ton of money just by forming the district," he later stated. "This is a huge risk that I am not going to be able to support.

"This whole thing could be decided with 32 people," he said, citing the expected low turnout at the June 26 Special Town Meeting. "You never know."

After Swanton mentioned that the assessment was much less likely to pass at town meeting without the move, school committee member Joyce Reischutz said that the district had suffered decreases in Medicaid reimbursement this year and was shaved too closely.

"This is a very precise budget, but just one more special education student and we have nothing. And like Jim said, we don't have a way to go to the town and say 'Hey, we are short $20,000. We don't have it."

Mock reminded the committee that if it reduced its budget by only $55,000, due to Shirley's 32/68 ratio with Ayer, it would add another $50,000 to Ayer's assessment.

School Committee Vice Chairman Susan Therriault said she has never been in favor of reducing the school budget and was glad that others on the committee agreed with her.

"We are trying to build a region here, and reducing the budget is not going to get us there."

She said that she appreciates the finance committee's advocacy and leadership in Shirley, but she still does not support any cuts to the school budget.

"But if the committee thinks we should support that cut, I will support it on the town floor," she conceded.

The vote was 3-2 in favor of proposing $75,000 in cuts to the district budget, with Therriault and Quinty dissenting.