AYER -- It's too little, too late.
The Ayer Finance Committee met on March 27 and was nonplussed by a plan for Shirley to shift more of the financial burden of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District onto Ayer.
Weeks ago, Shirley officials signaled the town's inability to cover rising school costs, which include a state-mandated $202,000 hike in Shirley's required local contribution (RLC) towards the district. Shirley was also due to pay a stepped-up share of the annual assessment under the terms of a graduated five-year buy-in program brokered between the towns at the outset of regionalization.
As Ayer selectmen prepare to finalize the annual Town Meeting warrant on April 4, a lone voice from Shirley floated a "Plan B" scenario for Ayer's consideration -- a $200,000 reduction in the school budget and a shift from a five- to a seven-year buy-in timeframe for Shirley to ease into its assessment share. It was a proposal put forth by Shirley Finance Committee Vice Chairman Mike Swanton in his individual capacity.
Ayer Finance Committee Chairman Scott Houde said that scenario, "to be honest, has a larger impact on Ayer."
Houde said he'd wrangled to determine how to decipher the depths of Shirley's situation. "After a couple of iterations, I finally cracked the code."
Houde said a downward RLC adjustment for Shirley would continuously maintain Shirley's lower contributions towards the regional school district since the towns' assessments "set the baseline for the year after."
"That's because our percentage or baseline never changes. Eventually we'll pay more over fiscal 2015, 2016 and 2017.
"When you look at the impact on the district itself going forward because the baseline is lower, it does reduce from that baseline budget $200,000 a year, for an aggregate of $1.2 million. So that's kind of what I see out of the numbers."
"We as a town would be very vulnerable to any increases in the (school) district," said Houde. "It would be a very significant impact to our town because we'd pay a higher percentage of the increase."
"That was my concern," said committee member John Kilcommins. "What if we had a significant increase in SPED" he said, for example.
Houde said with a lower contribution rate from Shirley, such a shift would "make Ayer the limiting factor on the school budget."
Selectman Pauline Conley said a $200,000 change to the school's budget -- which has already been voted by the regional School Committee -- cannot be achieved at this point. The RSC has certified its budget and sent it to the two towns for consideration at the respective annual Town Meetings.
As far as being any kind of a "saving grace plan," Conley noted, "There's not even time to implement it ... procedurally it's not correct."
Finance Committee member Michael Pattenden was not impressed with the proposed solution. "It seems to me that all we have is, 'Push it out from five to seven years,' and, 'Let's work along with the current figures ... let's not correct them or add any money to bring it up to where it should be.'"
Pattenden said he hears only "'Let's rely on Ayer to take care of the problem.' I want to hear what Shirley is doing right now to take care of this problem, and I'm not actually hearing anything. I might be wrong."
"No, you're absolutely correct," said Houde. "We've had two massive sessions with the five entities," including the two boards of selectmen, the two finance committees and the regional School Committee. Other than a few passing ideas, "There really hasn't been much to work with," said Houde.
"My feeling is quite simple," said Pattenden. "I'm not in the slightest bit interested in pushing anything out seven years absent an underlying action to address this in five years. I want a plan that's going to take care of the underlying problem inside of a five-year period and I'm simply not hearing that."
"I have sympathy for Shirley as a town, but they've signed the original agreement and they knew about the RLC figure," said Pattenden. "I can't go along with it any further. I really can't."
Kilcommins said it equates to the schools "taking a $1.4 million haircut" at a time the schools are "already lean."
"On paper," Selectman Frank Maxant said the new plan "looks OK." However, Maxant said the plan "takes the money right out of the school budget. If I'm a parent, I say 'Hey, that's not what we were promised.' I can sympathize with Ayer not accepting plan B."
Maxant had moved to act on a theoretical proposal pitched by Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabree -- use a Shirley piece of property as collateral for a $500,000 Ayer loan for Shirley to cover its school tab. That idea was soundly slapped down by Shirley selectmen.
Before Shirley selectmen rejected the idea, Maxant made contact with Gov. Deval Patrick's administration to ask the state to transfer ownership of Devens lands to Shirley to collateralize any potential Ayer loan. Maxant said his efforts were "sabotaged." Last week, the Ayer Board of Selectmen voted 4-1 with Maxant dissenting to clarify for the state that Maxant spoke individually in making his request, and not with the will of the board.
Nonetheless, Maxant said "this business of having the school absorb all the cuts is not going to sit well at all for very good reason."
"We've invested $2.4 million in the schools. To see the impact of a $200,000 cut is, in my mind, too much," said Houde. "We haven't invested this much to receive a negative return on our investment."
"Whether anyone means it or not, it is a game of chicken," said Maxant. "And the Ayer students are the pawns in the game. To say education will suffer unless Ayer comes up with more money? We can't let that play out."
Maxant pledged he'd continue working with the state to "resurrect" the Devens land-transfer concept.
Ayer Capital Planning Committee Chairwoman Mary Spinner said she's troubled with Shirley's attitude, "They seem to think we're the rich relative."
"We didn't regionalize with the town, we regionalized the schools," said Spinner.
Houde agreed, stating he feels "no sense of urgency from Shirley to try to right the ship. It's like driving a tanker, seeing an iceberg and turning the wheel. It takes a long time to turn."
Houde praised Swanton's efforts. "He's trying. He is coming up with ideas. Unfortunately I don't think they'll solve anything in the long term."
"They have no long-term plan," said Spinner. "They're just 'Oh well...'"
Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon said "Shirley has to figure out what they're going to do." Muldoon said Shirley was to save $2 million over five years anyhow.
"I don't want to beat a dead horse anymore," said Houde. He asked the committee if it wished to take an official stance on Swanton's idea.
"I don't," said Muldoon. "I really don't want to see us spend a lot of time on this. I think we have to wait for them to make a decision, and then we have to counter that in some effect."
"I agree with that 100 percent," said Kilcommins.
"At risk off beating a dead horse a little bit," said Dan Gleason of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee. Gleason said it's too soon to tell where state and federal school funding stands. Also, Shirley will elect two selectmen at month's end. "There will be at least one new person."
Also Shirley is without a town administrator equivalent at the moment. "We'll probably have to wait for the new blood to come in," said Gleason. "It's going to be a lengthy process unfortunately before we come to any resolution."
Pattenden made a motion stating that the Ayer Finance Committee expressly rejected the "Shirley Plan B" as a "bald statement of fact." His motion died for lack of a second.
"I'm just going to let this play out," said Muldoon. "I don't want to be confrontational. I just want them to figure out what they're going to do in their town."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.