AYER/SHIRLEY -- In presenting the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District's first draft of its fiscal 2014 budget, Superintendent Carl Mock said it was his 25th budget presented to a board.

"Most budgets tell a story in one form or another, and the story here, in my opinion, is that we are in our second year of operation; we have a lot of need.

"The very successful passage of the (high school renovation) bond issue was very helpful and is a good thing, but has very little impact on our operating budget as such," he said.

He added that the budget "contains nothing new in terms of the programs I wish we could make. There is still not enough money for everybody to go around, as far as municipal and school budgets, and this will probably not be the budget we wind up with."

The expenditures budget as proposed is very defensible, he said, and, if anything, is on the short side.

"If we had enough money, most of those items would appear in the budget," Mock stated. "There is a lot of other need we haven't even focused on because even focusing on these things, they will not make it in the budget.

"But we will need a long-term plan for the replacement of furniture, technology and the facilities. But we are not there yet; we are still fighting to maintain the academic programs we want and desperately need."

A close look at the numbers

The total proposed fiscal 2014 operating budget is $23,004,084, just 2.7 percent greater than the certified budget for fiscal 2012, which was $21,144,893. The revised budget for fiscal 2013 was $21,999,362, as voted by the School Committee in December.

According to Mock, of the $23 million slated for fiscal 2014, about $200,000 is related to the capital debt. Excluding the capital debt, the actual operating costs are estimated to be $802,360, or about 3.6 percent of the budget.

Net school spending (NSS) in the fiscal 2014 budget proposal is $21,575,739. Non-NSS, which includes the transportation, debt, and capital assessment formulas, is estimated to be $1,428,345.

The proposed budget does include salaries for negotiated contracts. However, some staff salaries have yet to be negotiated, so the budget includes a sum of money that is "more of a place-keeper than anything else, and we may need to find more money elsewhere to cover that," explained Mock.

There are also special-education increases, as well as capital debt for the principal interest for next year, and the amendment to the regional agreement that has Ayer picking up part of the remaining middle school debt until the high-school renovation debt is paid off.

Mock said the district will receive less for its incentive aid in fiscal 2014, and thus "will always be losing some $22,000. The total revenue we have to make up is about $36,000, but that may change after the governor's budget is released," he said.

Ayer and Shirley assessments

The total fiscal 2014 assessment for Ayer, excluding the high-school project, per the regional agreement, is estimated to be $9,029,723. Shirley's is $5,340,200, which includes the town paying the second year of a five-year phase-in of its funding target in the regional agreement.

Next year, Shirley will pay 32 percent of NSS costs above the required local contribution (RLC), up from 24 percent in fiscal 2012, and 28 percent in fiscal 2013. In the next three years, the phase-in will continue to be about a 45 percent share.

According to Katz, this applies to about $3 million of the assessment. About $10 million is allocated by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Another $1 million, allocated through another formula in the regional agreement, is for transportation costs.

Overall, the operating budget assessment would increase 5.2 percent for Ayer and 7.9 percent for Shirley in fiscal 2014.

Under an amendment to the regional agreement passed last fall, Ayer will pay 100 percent of the high-school project debt service of the projected costs in fiscal 2014. The town will pay about $48,000 in debt service, and deposit another $154,000 into a debt stabilization fund that Shirley can tap to reduce its future high school debt costs.

Including the debt payments, Ayer's total assessment would rise by 7.6 percent, and Shirley's by 7.9 percent, said Katz.

He later added that the proposed operating and debt assessments will change slightly in the next couple of weeks, as the DESE will be announcing updated RLC amounts as part of the governor's budget in late January.

In addition, debt-service amounts will be adjusted based on actual bids received this week for short-term borrowing to fund the high-school construction over the next six months.

Budget savings and drivers

Areas of savings in the budget, which total about $760,000, are in health insurance, Lunenburg tuition, charter schools and school choice, electricity, maintenance contracts, retirement, and district elections, of which there will be none in fiscal 2014.

Big drivers for the budget include cost increases totaling just over $1 million in special education out-of-district services and transportation; the capital debt for the high school, which will go up next year and then plateau over several years; an increase in retiree benefit payments; instructional materials and supplies; additional ELL staffing; and, future salary increases.

Not reflected in the budget, said Mock, but much-needed, are an increase in staff in the high school therapeutic program, upgrading an ELL half-time paraprofessional to a half-time teacher, and the equalization of per-pupil costs across the schools.

Unmet requests

Mock pointed to many unmet requests from the schools' administration that he would support, "but we cannot afford them. Frankly, we will be talking about what comes out of the budget before we talk about what goes in," he lamented.

When School Committee member Susan Therriault inquired about whether the district was fulfilling its special-education requirements, Mock replied that, at the high school, "there is some question about it."

"The therapeutic program is becoming more inclusion that not, and that is the hole in the dike that needs to be plugged," he said. He added that if the district does not have a good program, students coming up from eighth grade could end up in out-of-district placements unless some program replacements can be made in conjunction with the FLLAC Educational Collaborative.

Therriault also noted the disparity in technology capabilities and staff between Page Hilltop and Lura A. White Elementary. Lura A. White has no technology teacher or assistant principal.

Mock noted that Lura A. White has a higher budgeted per-pupil cost, but, he added, "There are so many demands on principals these days, it is getting increasingly difficult."

School choice

Last year about 145 students attended school elsewhere through school choice; this year the number is closer to 125, according to Ayer-Shirley Finance Director Evan Katz. That saves the district about $100,000, he said.

The number of students attending charter schools last year was 100. This year the number is 91. That and a reduction in charter school tuition rates "are both good trends," Katz said. "The tuition amount is down, as are the number of choice-out students."

Although choice-in numbers were also down this year, those numbers tend to fluctuate from year-to-year, Katz said.