SHIRLEY -- In presenting the Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee with a preliminary draft of the district's fiscal year 2015 budget, Superintendent Carl Mock stated that the needs of the school district are growing compared with what the two communities can afford.
"There is never a good budget season," he said, quoting former Ayer School District Superintendent George Frost, "but this is as different a one as I have ever experienced, because it is a similar story to the previous two years, which is a little frustrating."
"The regionalization, without a doubt, gave you the opportunity to provide a quality education," he said, "but is it sustainable? Are you able to actually somehow meet the need on an ongoing basis?"
Mock told the committee that the details of the budget draft had been put together over the last several weeks, but that he and school district Finance Director Evan Katz had been discussing the budget since last fall.
The fundamental question in developing the preliminary fiscal 2015 budget, he said, became which should be given greater priority, the ability of the towns to pay their assessment, or the needs of the district, including the need for the district to make some progress toward fulfilling its chronic lack of resources.
The budget he and Katz presented, he explained, is based upon the needs of the district, but does not include all of those needs.
The district's leadership team's requests for additional resources, based upon what the school principals said they need above and beyond what they have, totaled approximately $1.8 million, with slightly less than $600,000 of that amount included in the preliminary budget.
The unmet requests, Mock said, total $1.2 million, which is $800,000 and $600,000 more, respectively, than at the beginnings of fiscal 2013 and 2014.
"The writing is on the wall for the school district and the towns, as well," he said. "The fundamental question in presenting the preliminary budget is the ability of the towns to pay their assessment, and we have had discussions with officials in Shirley and know what number they are looking for, but we must weigh that against the need.
"Last year we took the tack of being more realistic about what the communities can afford, but we are back this year working from the aspect of the school district's need."
Those needs include increasing the full time equivalents (FTEs) of English Language Learner (ELL) teachers at the high school from 2.5 to 3.0; hiring a facilities coordinator; adding a .56 FTE evening custodial staff position; increasing facilities automation time and support; increasing summer secretarial support; adding a special-education teacher at the high school; adding a teacher position at Page Hilltop Elementary School; and hiring an assistant principal for Lura A. White Elementary School.
Those additions equal 4.92 FTEs, at a cost of $502,000. That amount plus the $80,450 carried in the fiscal year 2015 program budget total $1,798,235 in requests.
Program budget items include picking up part of the cost of a Lura White Title I reading teacher, due to reduced Title I funding; keeping a therapeutic class paraprofessional at Page Hilltop; foreign language texts at the high school; instructional software; and, ELL supplies and materials.
Capital debt and operating expenses
The next fiscal year will be the first year the full impact of principal and interest payments on the high-school renovation project will be reflected in the assessments for the towns of Ayer and Shirley. The assessments related to those payments, which are excluded capital debt for the purposes of Proposition 2 1/2, total $1,393,475 between the two towns. The breakdown is $1,015,018 for Ayer, and $378,457 for Shirley. Shirley's assessment, said Mock, may be offset by stabilization funds set aside for that purpose.
According to Mock, the budgetary impacts of the proposed operating expenses come to percent increases of 5.5 in the general fund, 5.0 in all funds, and 8.1 in the assessment, as compared with fiscal year 2014. Of those percentage increases, 3.3, 3.1, and 4.9 percent, respectively, are needed just to maintain and support the district's current levels of programming and staffing.
The biggest estimated cost increases are in salaries of personnel, health insurance costs and school choice.
Areas of significant savings total about $81,500; however, next year's revenue from nonassessment sources is estimated to be approximately $16,000 less than the current year's revenue, based partially on reduced charter-tuition reimbursement and $20,000 less in Regional Incentive Aid.
Medical insurance, special education and facilities are areas that, over the coming weeks and months, could significantly impact the proposed budget, either positively or negatively, Mock said. Those estimated costs must be finalized by the time the budget is certified in March.
With undesignated reserves of only about $493,000, plus anticipated excess and deficiency of $90,000, "We have very thin reserves considering the size of our budget," Mock stated.
The harsh reality
"Shirley is facing the dynamic of having to make up ground over a five-year period at a time that it is trying to get its finances in order, and even when you get to the point where the need had been addressed, just to maintain what you are doing from year to year, I cannot foresee that you can continue without an approximately $700,000 (two-town) increase," he said.
"Even with Shirley's makeup and going forward, if the student population continues the way they are trending now, to make up that on an annual basis, we will end up with a $400,000 increased assessment for Ayer, and $300,000 increased assessment for Shirley. That is all the current taxing authority the community has, plus its new growth on an annual basis. How is that sustainable? It is going to be a real challenge, but I think that is the kind of thing we have to be thinking about."
"With the limitations of the region and assessment formula," Mock continued, "the communities will have to be forced sooner, rather than later, to address an override, which the communities cannot avoid to do some catch-up," so long as the assessment formula is on a per pupil basis.
"Property values in the two towns are within a couple thousand dollars of each other in the two communities. If the two towns were to use the same change in the tax rate for those average tax rates, Ayer can raise 75 percent more per kid than Shirley. So long as the assessment formula is based on a per-pupil apportionment and not the ability to pay, then it will be difficult to maintain sustainability, in my opinion," he concluded. "It is a serious issue and a limiting factor in trying to address some of the issues I am talking about."
A word from the town of Shirley
"What I see is more than double what I am budgeting," noted Shirley Town Administrator Patrice Garvin. "We have 2.5 percent to work with; I really don't see where the town of Shirley is going to get the additional revenue for the assessment ... We talk about sustainability, but I don't see how Shirley can sustain over the next year, let alone the next five years."
"We have to try and spend some time trying to figure out how we are going to solve the problem," said School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly, who suggested the committee meet with the two towns' boards of selectmen and finance committees.
Mock reiterated Ayer town officials' concern about Shirley's finances, and said Garvin and the selectmen were "trying to make some ground, which is a good place to start with."
"I would just like to let the board know where we are," Garvin responded.
The School Committee will need to hold hearings and certify its budget at least 45 days prior to the May 12 Ayer Town Meeting. Shirley's town meeting is set for June 2.