AYER - It wasn't a formal vote. However, the mood of the Ayer Finance Committee seemed distinctly dour last Wednesday in terms of helping Shirley cover its share of the Ayer Shirley Regional School District tab.

Chair Scott Houde rejected as "misconstrued" any talk that Shirley was facing a "penalty" in terms of its required local contribution (RLC) towards education costs. Rather, Houde said Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) School Finance Programs Administrator Roger Hatch clarified for the Shirley Finance Committee on March 11 that Shirley's scheduled 2 percent RLC increase was part of a statewide "accelerator" effort to reach parity between communities' education contributions, adjusted for what municipalities can afford.

"They've been calling it a penalty," said Houde. Houde said the take-away was that two-thirds of the communities in the state are paying above the targeted RLC while one third of the communities (including Shirley) are "being moved up depending on the percentage they're off target... It's not a penalty per se."

Shirley Finance Committee Vice Chairman Michael Swanton had requested of both Hatch and State Rep. Jennifer Benson that the town be granted some form of RLC relief to the tune of $87,000. "That's in question," said Houde.

Houde also reflected on the March 12 school district's Fiscal Year 2014 budget hearing the night before. The evening debate was dominated by discussion over Shirley's ability - or inability - to pay an increased assessment to the Ayer Shirley Regional School District.

Houde said Ayer selectman Pauline Conley "hit the nail on the head" when saying Ayer must essentially "sit and wait for Shirley to give us anything" in terms of figures. The proposed Shirley municipal budget hasn't yet been finalized for presentation to Town Meeting, and at the meeting Shirley "didn't really have any answers for us."

With state aid figures yet to be finalized, too, Houde said Ayer may be wise to "stash more into Stabilization" to be ready to cover any potential added contribution needed. Stabilization funds can be spent only with a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting.

Beyond the RLC catch-up calculation, Houde said Shirley faces a "two step problem." First, for the upcoming year, Houde said Shirley has signaled it cannot pay $555,000 more in its stepped-up assessment figure. Ayer's assessment is likewise to increase but by a more modest $239,000. At play is the five year buy-in approach between the two towns in which Shirley was given a five year window, temporarily subsidized by Ayer, to ease into its share of the assessment.

Also, Houde said there's a long term problem for Shirley - its ongoing ability to pay beyond the upcoming Fiscal Year 2014. "How do we make it so that we're not having this conversation every year?"

Talk that Ayer should pick up the difference was not palatable to Houde, who said Ayer's "wealth" (or budgetary health) is more "an anomaly at best" and should not be seen as a fix for the problems at hand.

"Whatever our RLC is, we're $1.5 million above it," noted committee member Michael Pattenden. "Shirley has not reached its RLC but they are also paying about $910,000 above it ... [so] why is it [RLC] not just rounded up or down?"

Houde agreed the DESE talk was somewhat unclear, making it "sound like they're delinquent."

Houde said Shirley officials "panned" a suggestion by Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabree, in which it was suggested that perhaps Ayer could lend Shirley $500,000 in Ayer Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) funds collateralized by a lien on a piece of Shirley municipal property. The idea, first floated by the Ayer selectmen the prior week, had not been previously presented to Shirley.

Pattenden wondered how his peers on the Ayer Finance Committee felt about suggestions that Ayer pay more towards the district next year in a Band-Aid approach. Pattenden sensed the Ayer selectmen "seem collectively fairly strong not to want to put any further load on the town of Ayer. Does the FinCom feel the same way?"

"Yes and no," said Houde.  While wanting to "protect the investment that we've made" in the district to the tune of $2.4 million to date, Houde also said he'd oppose any further change to the two-town regionalization agreement, which has already been thrice amended by the respective Town Meetings.

"We went into regionalization with a presentation on what the formula would be," said Houde. He recalled pre-regionalization meetings between the Ayer and Shirley selectmen and finance committees, in concert with the Regional School Committee, in which there were assurances that the assessment buy-in approach "would work here in Shirley. We were sold here in Ayer that it was a leap of faith."

Now with renewed talk of changing the contribution formula between towns, Houde said "that's where I have to put my foot down.... I don't want people to look at our town every time there's a problem with our schools and say 'We'll go to Ayer."

While Ayer enjoys more in terms of tax revenue with a split tax rate between commercial/industrial and residential properties, Houde said "that costs us money because there's a lot of overhead in our budget to cover that. That's why our fire and police departments and DPW are staffed the way they are...I don't want to just hand the schools a check and say 'Here, let's make it all better."

Houde cautioned that any extra money Ayer pays in the town may "never get back...The longer we prolong that [and] once we pay it in that sets the baseline for the next year's calculation."

"And each year that we push it out is one year further from resolving the underlying issue," agreed Pattenden.

"You wouldn't put $100,000 into your car to make it worse when you drove it," said Houde, driving the point further. "I don't want to invest $2.4 million and then have the quality of the education diminished due to other factors."

Saying Ayer has a "larger capacity to pay" is "kind of annoying to me," added Vice Chairman Brian Muldoon. "That just throws up a smoke screen for me. You have to look at 'Was the calculation wrong in the beginning?' and 'Is it fair?"

Muldoon said without those answers, he was in no mood to approach Ayer Town Meeting asking for more or trying to "convince people this is the way to go."

However, Muldoon said he was swayed last year when the school district flagged what it called an inequity between the towns. The Shirley Middle School, originally slated to educate Shirley students, became regionalized, with Ayer students attending. Yet the town of Shirley was singularly shouldering the construction debt for the school, which is leased to the district.

"Last year, I didn't expect to pay part of the middle school debt. I never thought of that because I never thought the kids would go that way. When I first heard it, I said 'it doesn't make sense [for Ayer to help with the middle school debt]."

Though it was "not what we agreed to originally," Muldoon said "they proved to me that we should do it and its fair. They're going to have to do the same thing with this. To go back to the well, it's going to have to be proven to me."

Committee member John Kilcommins had not yet arrived at the meeting to weigh in on Pattenden's informal poll. Pattenden solicited the opinion of fifth committee member Marianne Zawacki.

"I agree with Scott - it is a tangible investment," said Zawacki. "We ultimately want to make sure it funded properly." But she was not keen to have annual struggles over the issue.

Of the split responsibilities between the two towns, Zawacki suggested "perhaps it does need to be reevaluated. They need to prove that to us [however] I can't imagine this is going to go over well at Town Meeting."

"I can't think if we go to Town Meeting without any of this information or not prepared that it would go anywhere," echoed Muldoon.

Houde said he'd be loath to agree to any changes to the regional contract in favor of Shirley without Ayer retaining any "control" over the funding. "If we pay more, it doesn't change our ability to control that money."

Houde said his parents live in a town where, under a 30 year old agreement, his parent's town pays more in a regional school assessment because their property values were higher. Now, 30 years later, the poorer community has a 3-to-1 margin of students populating the district.

"That's the potential of what you can get into," said Houde. "You're footing the bill for a larger population." Going back and trying to retool a regional agreement carries no "guarantee the other entity will agree to come back and pay more."

Pattenden opined that "there's an emotional level and financial level which says Ayer is probably paying its fair share now.

Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.