SHIRLEY -- Speaking to a full house at the Finance Committee meeting Tuesday night that included the Ayer Shirley Regional School District Superintendent and business manager and all the town's School Committee representatives, Chairman Mike Swanton said he can't see any way Shirley can pay its school assessment as presented.

Based on the School Committee budget, Shirley's share of the annual assessment came in 8.6 percent higher than last year. But Town Administrator Patrice Garvin built a 4.88 percent increase into the municipal operating budget, which started out with a $300,000 deficit and is still in the red, despite cuts that included one layoff, a reduction in staff hours and anticipated changes in the employee health insurance design plan.

The school district produced a needs-based budget for fiscal year 2015 that Superintendent Carl Mock said is barely enough to sustain services and continue to improve education. But Garvin pointed out that two new positions were added: a high school special education teacher and an elementary school classroom teacher.

In a white paper explaining the "preliminary budget" in terms of school district needs versus member towns ability to pay, Mock said this year's requests for additional resources reflect "unmet needs" for the previous two years, and the needs deficit continues to grow.

But Swanton said the schools can certainly push for the higher number, even if it calls for a tax override, but he doubts such a proposal would fly, with the high school building project on line and slated to raise town property taxes in the coming fiscal year, adding about $170 to the tax bill for an average single family home valued at $250,000.

Swanton said he wanted to pose three questions to the district contingent invited to attend the FinCom session. First, what's the implication of a regional budget that comes closer to the town's affordable benchmark? What drives the "significant increase" this year's school budget represents? And are we making headway on the Choice-in versus Choice-out balance to tilt it toward rather than away from the district? Stemming the costly choice-out flow of students leaving the district was one of the promised perks of regionalization, he pointed out.

"We understand it's a lot to ask," Mock said as discussion turned to $500,000 worth of items on the district's educational wish list, a couple of which made the final cut, including a $72,000 add-in for a high school special education teacher. The position is essential, he said, as is a new classroom teacher for Page-Hilltop Elementary School.

Without the special Ed teacher, a targeted group of high school students would likely require placements that would cost the district much more, including transportation. As for the elementary school classroom teacher, previous intra-district moves postponed the need for a new hire for a while, but it's reached critical mass now and if the position is not added, class sizes will increase, Mock said.

Seeking a place to whittle down the number, Swanton suggested revisiting the need for assistant principals at the elementary school level, which Mock staunchly defended.

Mock insisted the budget is realistic, however and that if any items other than those two were added, two other items would have to come out to pay for them.

"I know you have a figure," he said, addressing Swanton and Garvin, but without cutting personnel or shortchanging transportation so that busses would no longer pick up younger students who live within the 2-mile limit set by the state. "There's no other way," he said.

Swanton said the real problem is lack of new revenue, which brought him back to the School Choice dilemma. Three years into the new region, he asked why the tide hasn't turned in the district's favor.

School Committee member Susan Therriault said that was an unrealistic expectation. "It's a long term proposition," she said. It's all about resources that other communities provide their schools, with well-established music and foreign language programs that attract students. 

Suggesting that other towns do better than Shirley or Ayer in terms of their contribution to schools is not accurate, Garvin responded. "This town pays 50 percent of its budget for schools" Besides, home values are higher in those other communities.

In the end, the dilemma was not solved, but the town has put its foot forward with a 4.88 percent increase Garvin hopes the School Committee will take into consideration.

Mock didn't promise any cuts, but he did say they'd talk about it.