SHIRLEY -- Underscoring the Finance Committee's take on a proposed Ayer Shirley Regional School District budget that calls for a $900,000 assessment hike over last year, selectmen Monday night told Superintendent Carl Mock the town can't pay the bill.
Not without a tax override anyway.
Summarizing the presentation he had previously given to both Ayer and Shirley Finance Committees and the Ayer selectmen, handouts and all, Mock said the "needs-based" budget the School Committee approved in January reflected the district's determination to provide the kind of quality education kids need and deserve and that both communities want, rather than base the budget on "fiscal limits" in the two towns.
As proof that the budget was realistic versus idealistic, Mock pointed to a wish list of items the administrative team submitted that totaled $1.8 million, noting an "unmet needs" deficit that continues to grow.
"We knew we might have to back down some" and they've started to look at ways to do that, he said. "But the need doesn't go away."
Mock listed "cost drivers" behind an anticipated assessment more than double the 4.88 percent hike Town Administrator Patrice Garvin built into the municipal budget for the purpose. The biggest number was salaries, about $387,000 more than last year. Second was health insurance, up by $200,000. School choice-out numbers went up and the cost of transportation did too, plus additional utility costs for the new high school now under construction. "We never said a new school would cost less," Mock said, only that it would be more efficient, which it is, with all systems working.
Over the last couple of years, "six figure" savings included shrinking Lunenburg tuition as the contract expires and past personnel reductions. But savings have been more modest this year and the trend will continue going forward, Mock said. Three items to watch between now and Town Meeting are the cost of medical insurance, special education and facilities, particularly fuel bills, he added.
But Selectman David Swain wanted to spotlight the revenue side of the picture, in particular how the school district can do more to "promote itself," holding open houses to highlight programs and showcasing the renovated high school and new academic wing once the multi-million-dollar building project is completed.
It might take some re-packaging and selling to recruit within the district, Swain posited, to lessen the numbers of students leaving to attend other public school districts or charter schools, choices that draw significant amounts of state money from the home district.
Mock, who is leaving when his contract is up at the end of the school year, acknowledged that he might not have been much of a cheerleader but has preferred to let programs speak for themselves. "I'd say more...it's a complex issue," he ventured, conceding that the dialog made him uncomfortable. But it's not all about PR, he said.
"It doesn't take long ... to figure out" which communities commit the most resources to education, Mock said. And "bad press" about town and school officials squabbling over the school budget doesn't help matters any.
Bottom line, though, is that the town can't pay such a high assessment this year, although both sides agreed those are issues worth talking about now to resolve them for the future.
Garvin said the indicators point to the School Committee seeking a tax override rather than back away from the $900,000 assessment increase, although they haven't said so yet.
Selectmen certainly showed no such inclination, nor did the Finance Committee when Mock and other school officials made a similar presentation to them last week. Chairman Mike Swanton said at the time that this was not the time to ask for an override, with the debt exclusion hike for the high school project set to hit town tax bills next year.
In terms of an override, the numbers would be "significant," Garvin said, citing a spreadsheet prepared by Principal Assessor Rebecca Boucher and based on an override of $200,000, the number on the table.
With the normal levy increase per Proposition 2 1/2 plus the debt-exclusion payment for the ASRSD High School project and a $200,000 tax override that would allow the town to meet its school assessment, the town tax rate would go up by $1.41 per $1,000 of value and increase the average tax bill by 8.41 percent. The "total effect" would be that real-estate taxes on an "average" ($251,113) home would go up $353.57, according to Boucher.
Citing cuts the town has made to balance its budget, Garvin indicated the school district should follow suit.
Sketching her takeaway from the recent FinCom meeting, Garvin said the notion of needing an override to solve the school assessment problem is "premature." General consensus was that "other measures" should be considered first, she said.