SHIRLEY -- The regular meeting of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District School Building Committee last Wednesday night was also a joint meeting with the ASRSD School Committee, and the agenda combined routine business with the reason for the shared session.

The Building Committee, which was appointed by the School Committee to oversee the school building project and includes several members of the other board, conducted routine business.

The School Committee came to take a vote.

School Committee members voted unanimously to appropriate $56,543,765 for the proposed high school building renovation and addition project.

Provided by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the document the committee's vote approved -- loaded with legal language and not subject to changes -- tied its borrowing power to three upcoming votes in the two member towns and spelled out precisely what the school district is getting into and why.

For example, the proposed "new school facility" to be built for the express purpose of educating and instructing school children "shall have an anticipated useful life ... of at least 50 years."

MSBA is the state agency that has been shepherding the ASRSD school building project and guiding its procedural progress, and it was good news from that quarter that prompted the School Committee's vote and bolstered both boards' hopes for success.

Good news

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, the day before the joint meeting in Shirley, MSBA voted unanimously to approve the regional school district's $56.6 million plan to extensively renovate the existing high school building in Ayer and build a new addition.

Subject to the outcome of Nov. 17 elections in both member towns, MSBA has now sealed its previous commitment, formally agreeing to reimburse the district for 70.25 percent of covered project costs.

With a list of covered and noncovered cost estimates on the table, ASRSD Superintendent Carl Mock said even though the school district's deal with MSBA stipulates that the School Committee must agree to appropriate the full amount -- $56,543,765 -- the lion's share will be picked up by the state. That, too, was in the vote, which states in part that "the amount of borrowing authorized pursuant to this vote shall be reduced by any grant amount set forth in the Project Funding Agreement" between the District and MSBA.

As of the recent MSBA vote, the payback promise now has a number -- $37,174,894 -- leaving a "local" funding total of $19,368,871 to be split between the two member towns, per the formula in the regional agreement.

But the hefty MSBA grant is contingent on successful district-wide and town votes, respectively, Mock continued, meaning that the School Committee can't enter into a "funding agreement" with MSBA unless and until the people of Ayer and Shirley approve the project and agree to fund each town's share via separate debt exclusions.

Currently, the percentage split for capital projects is 60/40, per the regional agreement and based on enrollment numbers, with the larger amount assessed to Ayer.

In addition, a proposed amendment to the regional agreement would temporarily raise Ayer's share and reduce Shirley's even more.

The amendment, endorsed at Shirley Town Meeting last month and due to air at Ayer's Town Meeting later in October, seeks to use the nascent high school building project capital assessment as a conduit for Ayer to share Shirley's existing middle school debt, still on the books for the next decade or so.

The vote

School Committee Vice Chairman Pat Kelly said the committee's vote imposes limits on its borrowing power, per MSBA criteria. But the language goes a step beyond what's required, he said, with a stipulation that makes it a three-ballot, package deal.

In a nutshell, the district-wide, or regional vote, which is a total count of both member towns together, gives the School Committee its marching orders. A majority yes vote gives the project a green light, for example, but before it's a go, debt exclusion questions in Ayer and Shirley, respectively, must pass as well.

That caveat is clearly spelled out in the "form of vote" document the School Committee unanimously approved. It reads, in part, "The approval of the debt authorized by this vote shall not take effect until each of the member towns vote to exclude from the limits of Proposition 2 1/2 the amounts required to pay the respective town's apportioned share of the principal and interest on the bonds to be issued pursuant to this vote." In short, the debt the School Committee agreed to incur has three more hurdles to clear: the district vote and two debt exclusions.

So even if the regional election outcome favors the project, the School Committee can't use that district-wide authorization without two, town-centric debt exclusions attached.

Building Committee business

Owners' Project Manager Trip Elmore of Dore and Whittier sketched the MSBA payback set-up.

Unlike the state's former school building board, which reimbursed school districts for approved project costs only after the job was complete, the new MSBA reimburses on a monthly basis as projects move along.

The agreed-upon amount -- in this case $37 million -- "has your name on it," and starts coming in while work is in progress, Elmore said.

School Committee member Dan Gleason pointed out that the money isn't subject to legislative appropriation, either, but is "sitting there" waiting to be doled out to school districts across the state that are still lining up to get their building projects approved.

But $37 million is already earmarked for the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District.

Specifically, one penny from every dollar collected from Massachusetts consumers automatically gets funneled into MSBA coffers to fund school building projects, Gleason said, adding that the total nest egg this year would be about $600 million.