AYER - The Ayer Finance Committee on Sept. 12 discussed two looming school funding issues- each with its own separate vote in the fall.
--AYER SHIRLEY HIGH SCHOOL RENOVATION PROJECT
The committee recapped its Sept 5 joint meeting with the selectmen on the proposed $56.7 million renovation of the Ayer-Shirley High School. A critical vote on the project by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) is set for Oct. 3.
Affirmative Ayer and Shirley votes must follow for the project to proceed. At the towns' respective Fall Town Meetings, voters will be asked to consider changing the regional school agreement to allow Ayer to offset the pre-existing Shirley Middle School debt by picking up a larger portion of the high school project debt.
Shirley's original debt service for the school was $5.6 million. For the first seven years after it opened in 2003 the school serviced only Shirley students but has since become the district's middle school with 60 percent enrollment from Ayer.
The towns are tentatively scheduled to vote on the debt exclusion piece on Saturday Nov. 17.
Finance Committee Chair Scott Houde admitted his initial reaction was "negative" to renovating the building for high school use only. But public presentations changed his mind. Separate secondary schools do "make sense," said Houde, the father of a middle school student.
"Instead of living in the shadow of the high school," the middle school population has space
"We should pay our fair share" of the middle school debt service, said Houde. The proposal is for Ayer to subsidize $1.9 million of the $5.6 million debt service on the middle school. Ayer would pay the sum over an estimated 13 fiscal year time frame by paying an additional sum each year toward Shirley's share of the high school debt. Ayer wouldn't be legally responsible for Shirley's middle school debt, but the subsidy would ease Shirley's burden.
"Look at it as an investment in Shirley" with the "ultimate goal" of getting the high school work completed, said Houde. "It's the most important decision the two towns will make over the next 10 years .As a citizen, I'm willing to invest and pay my fair share of the middle school."
Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon hoped the cost per household could be figured and circulated. "We've got just over two months until we have a vote," said Muldoon.
Ayer Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock said information is available on the district's website with "more to come There's a lot that's going to unfold over the next few weeks."
Muldoon said those on "fixed incomes" need to prepare for the vote. Houde said Finance Committee member John Kilcommins are compiling the data, including a look at the town's other debt obligations. "We want to try to manage this so the impact is not devastating to taxpayers and residents."
Finance Committee member Michael Pattenden said the high-school only approach intertwined with the proposed middle school debt obligations subsidy makes him "wildly less enthusiastic about the whole project for all kinds of reasons."
Mock said Ayer isn't being asked to "buy in" to the middle school, just to pay its "equitable share" of the debt.
"I don't actually disagree or argue with what we're doing," said Pattenden. "We're using the Shirley building so we really ought to contribute towards it."
Pattenden asked why the projected high school finance rate is being cast as 4.5 percent when rates are a point lower. Mock said the goal is to be "conservative rather than be too optimistic."
While MSBA has recently estimated a $19.4 million local cost for the $56.7 million project, Mock said the district is talking in terms of $19.6 million locally to "give a more realistic figure of what might happen."
"We want exact limits" before voting on Nov. 17, said Pattenden. "When can we realistically expect figures that are 99.9 percent correct?"
"I'd think you'd first need authorization to borrow to know the interest rate," said selectmen Gary Luca. "It's a catch 22."
Mock said they're preparing firmer figures but warned "the level of specificity you're asking for may not be available except for the dollar figure of the project. We'll have a signed agreement with MSBA as to what their share is." Instead of downwardly adjusting the local share figures, Mock suggested "the taxpayers would want to hear a more conservative estimate than a more optimistic one."
Without firm figures, "I ain't going to vote for it," said Pattenden. "Nor will most people I want to know 99 percent. If that's percent conservative, that's fair enough."
Pattenden said the price tag's too high, and said a successful debt exclusion vote will squeeze taxpayers. Pattenden suggested the stakeholder officials produce one "piece of paper with all the numbers on it."
Pattenden suggested the Ayer Finance Committee website host the data, too.
Shirley Fall Town Meeting is Sept. 24, while Ayer's FTM is Oct. 22. The tentative date for the school ballots is Sat., Nov. 17.
Selectman Pauline Conley echoed selectman Frank Maxant's concerns of the prior week. "There should be some consideration of the $500,000 Ayer has to pay" towards the regionalization assessment equation. "If you want Frank's support, it needs to be considered."
"The way I look at it, it's kind of separate," said Houde.
"It can still be incorporated," suggested Conley. Instead of the $2 million Ayer contribution towards the Shirley Middle School debt service, Maxant suggested a $500,000 credit to Ayer with a revised Ayer-to-Shirley middle school subsidy instead of $1.5 million.
--NASHOBA VALLEY TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL CAPITAL BUY-IN
Ayer Town Meeting voted this spring to join the Nashoba Valley Technical High School district in Westford. The vote is expected to save the town money, in that it already sends students to the technical high school on a tuition basis and separately finances those transportation costs.
Ayer now has a seat at NVTHS committee meetings. Ayer's formal membership begins in the upcoming 2013-2014 school year when the town pays an assessment to the regional technical high school instead of tuition.
As was noted this past spring, a separate vote was to follow at Fall Town Meeting to finance the town's $550,000 capital buy-in contribution towards the school's capital account. Another approach offered was for the town to finance the amount over three years for a total cost of $750,000. Most agree the direct payment route is preferred.
Now there's talk of the selectmen paying the bill outright from the town's Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) account instead of putting the $550,000 sum before Town Meeting voters. This approach suggests refunding the UDAG loan over five years' time in $100,000 annual payments from the omnibus budget.
"Transportation [savings] alone would cover that," said Finance Committee member John Kilcommins. "That's $77,000 [annually] alone," agreed Luca.
Finance Committee Chair Scott Houde said a $100,000 per year payback approach "should be very feasible."
"When is the decision going to be made on this?" asked Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon. "It's been brought up three times."
Luca said the idea will be on the selectmen's agenda on Sept. 25. "I requested it."
The Fall Town Meeting warrant is to close Friday, Sept. 28 at 5 p.m.
Luca said the portion of the UDAG account controlled by the selectmen has $1.6 million that could be tapped at this time.
Houde said another idea is to pay the UDAG funds back faster using annual certified free cash sums. Though that sum fluctuates, Houde projected the payback could happen in three to four years. "It would pay for itself - figuratively and actually."
Later in the meeting, Conley asked if the committee intended to discuss the merits of the approach before the selectmen consider it on Tuesday, Sept. 25. 'You're not going to weigh in?" The Finance Committee meets the following night, Wednesday, Sept. 26.
Conley said the UDAG approach is being floated to "avoid Town Meeting," adding "no one's researching whether it's an appropriate use of that money." Conley suggested discussions with former town officials "with historical background on the funds. They cannot be used for just anything - even if we are going to pay it back."
Houde countered "we all agreed it needs to be paid back."
"As long as you're all here in 3 to 4 years," said Conley.
On Tuesday afternoon, Nashoba Publishing sought Luca's comment on the UDAG approach but received no immediate response.
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