SHIRLEY--The Ayer and Shirley Boards of Selectmen and Finance Committees came together at the latest meeting of the Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee to listen and to begin working toward a solution to the fledgling school district's looming fiscal crisis.

The fiscal year 2014 budget discussion began with a presentation by Ayer Shirley Superintendent Carl Mock. In late January, he said, the governor's budget's impact on Required Local Contributions (RLCs) threw "a huge curveball to at least one of our member towns, Shirley."

The question, he said, "is to what degree is this a shared issue or is this owned by just one or three entities that are in the room."

With the school committee required to certify its budget in three weeks, he added, "time is ticking."

Some Background

In fiscal year 2013, the Ayer Shirley Regional School District's (ASRSD) certified budget was $58,543 less than that of FY12. Thanks to revolving funds and grants, the revised FY13 budget was even less, but did not include the $550,000 in unanticipated special education costs for out-of-district placements and transportation, Mock explained.

"We had already cut this year's budget so close to the bone there was no wiggle room to cut staff," he said, later adding that the district had already cut eight positions at the end of the last school year.

The current preliminary FY14 budget of $25,654,925 is an increase of less than one percent over FY13.

New State Formula Throws Curveball

Besides the unanticipated increase in special education costs, the state's new formula for each community's Required Local Contribution (RLC) has changed the fiscal year 2014 assessments for Ayer and Shirley.

As a result, the assessment for Shirley will increase by $260,699, which changes net school spending (NSS) above the local contribution. The total FY14 assessment for Shirley is $555,591. Ayer's total is $239,015.

Mock presented several options for resolving the budget crisis, including reducing the school budget, using one-time resources, and amending the regional agreement to include something about the phase-in periods and including RLC as part of the phase-in.

A Tale of Two Communities

Ayer Selectman Jim Fay was the first to reply to Mock's question.

"It goes without saying that it is a shared problem, because we, being both towns, have our children in the schools, and if the schools are under stress it is a stress to us. So, to me, it is clearly a shared problem," he said.

Ayer FinCom member Michael Pattenden disagreed. "Ayer has already paid a million dollars over the (RLC) amount Shirley is paying...I'm sorry, but I can't see that this is an Ayer problem," he said. "My feeling is that Ayer is already doing a considerable chunk to help out Shirley and my feeling is that the school budget has to come down."

Ayer FinCom Chair Scott Houde, who prefaced his remarks by stating that he has three children in the school district, was more circumspect.

"I can understand the quandary in Shirley; however, myself, as a member of the FinCom and a taxpayer, we have invested in education and the regional agreement, which includes a $100,000 uptake per year to help Shirley be held harmless, and invested $1.9 million in the middle school, plus what we did for regionalization. That is $2.4 million to help Shirley with their situation.

"There is concern that if things are done in the school budget that will affect the investments we have made. There is really no room where you can cut the school budget because we have invested that $2.4 million, but risk seeing the quality of education being reduced."

Mock suggested pursuing a legal process that allows both towns at town meeting to reallocate the sum of the RLCs, thereby adjusting the assessment. He explained that there is a significant difference in the two towns' combined effort yields, a big component of the RLC.

"As I look at this as a long-term problem we have two communities who do not appear to have an equalized ability to pay," Mock said. 

"(Shirley's) ability to pay per kid is significantly less currently than it is in Ayer and that deserves consideration. Otherwise, there will be some real pressure for one community for the foreseeable future to be the limiting factor in education, and I don't think we can do that."

A Stopgap Solution

Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabree agreed that Ayer's split tax rate is much less pressure on Ayer homeowners.

"What I want to know before Ayer decides anything is that Shirley has a plan in place to do something," she said.

To that, Shirley FinCom Vice Chair Mike Swanton explained that while Shirley knew that it would have to make up the portion of the school allocation that comes from taxation and contribute more than it had been, the department of education had been giving Shirley a larger share of Ch. 70 money than many other towns.

"Now they came back to us with this large (RLC) increase. We didn't expect this double whammy," he said.

His stopgap solution: to change the amount of the school budget above the RLC.

"What if we held that number in total constant form last year to this year?," he asked. "A $335,000 increase would make it difficult for the school department, but that essentially reduces the RLC by that amount. The problem is Shirley is trying to make up this percentage difference. What if we held that constant? Take a year off from the make-up and make the five-year into a six-year recovery.

"Of that $335,000 reduction, Shirley's share becomes $208,000, and Ayer's is about $123,000. That drives Shirley's increase in assessment down from $550,000 to a $350,000 increase," he said.

With the school having to reduce its budget by $335,000, Ayer having to wait longer for Shirley to be on a par in terms of the RLC, and Shirley still having to come up with a $350,000 increase in its assessment, that solution is far from ideal, Swanton conceded.

"I don't think anyone is happy with that, but it would make it easier than what we are faced with today," he said.

Ayer Selectwoman Pauline Conley asked Swanton to provide a document showing all of the numbers.

"We can continue to hobble along for a few more years and make this work, which is not pleasant to any of the three parties around here, but the question is how to solve a problem," said Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand.

"The regional school district can further cut its budget but that is problematic to everyone around the table, if we care about the future of the school district, as the town would go the way of the school district."

As increased enrollment would help to improve the financial situation for the school district, Pontbriand suggested taking immediate action to lobby the towns' state legislators.

Action Items

Conley agreed and suggested that all those present sign a letter to the legislators. The majority concurred and the task of writing the letter fell to Pontbriand and Mock. Swanton offered to distribute the details of his plan, and the school committee made plans to contact its professional organizations.

While acknowledging that Shirley may not be able to pay the $350,000, Conley said that Ayer could probably handle carrying Shirley's phase-in for an extra year.

"Last year was a little bit bigger Band-aid. This is just a little Band-aid," she said. "I have to echo what Lisa said...but we have to figure out how the fiscal inequities can be resolved."

The public hearing on the school budget will be held on Tuesday, March 12, in the professional development room at Page Hilltop Elementary School in Ayer.