SHIRLEY -- The first leg of annual Town Meeting Monday night was also the first for new Town Moderator Enrico Cappucci and for Town Administrator Patrice Garvin, who rolled out a new presentation format for the omnibus budget.

With 152 of the town's 4,000 registered voters present, the meeting lasted nearly four hours and polished off five of the 17 warrant articles before adjourning shortly before 11 p.m. By then, voters had considered and consented to Article 5 -- Nashoba Tech's request to borrow $2.8 million for a new roof, with the payment split among eight member towns to kick in next year. They also worked through and wrapped up the $12,104,000 operating budget -- Article 4 -- which was presented in a changed format this year.

With line items bundled into eight "function" categories and motions made on each total before the entire operating budget was voted on, the warrant's subtle new look caused some minor confusion but not the hew and cry one resident predicted when Garvin conducted a run-through last week.

Former COA director John Oelfke said at the time that Town Meeting would object to the new model. As it turned out, most people seemed to adapt to the change pretty fast.

Meredith Marcincewicz said it was confusing at first but she didn't suggest a do-over, only that the read-through move more slowly, with totals displayed on screen in one instance when the numbers had changed and page numbers in the warrant referenced when each category came up, so people could follow along. With that done, the process moved forward without further ado.

The most controversial item in the budget was the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District assessment, and even that didn't cause as much of a ripple as some had anticipated.

Starting out with a $138,000 deficit and uncertainty over a $190,000 gap between the town-recommended and school-requested assessment numbers, the budget was balanced in the end. To get there, the two sides cut a last-minute deal that trimmed the assessment gap down to $38,500, which, after some discussion, Town Meeting agreed to accept.

The difference was made up with the infusion of one-time monies via various fund transfers, including free cash.

According to Superintendent Carl Mock, the school budget, based on district needs, should have been much higher than the amount the School Committee eventually certified, having determined that the figure they came up with earlier in the year would not be feasible or sustainable. Nor was it enough to offer the high quality program the three-year old regional school district is aiming for, he said.

Still, Garvin and her finance team and town officials balked and it looked like a stalemate going in.

Problem solved, for now

Sidestepping procedure, the moderator agreed to allow Mock to present the school budget separately. Nobody objected.

By then, Finance Committee Chairman Mike Swanton had forwarded an amendment that he said selectmen supported. His amendment proposed to "split the difference" between the two assessment figures, raising the town-recommended amount by $100,000 to $6,056,101.29 and backfilling the gap with a transfer from free cash.

Now it was up to the district to close the remaining $92,000 gap, Swanton said. "We think that's fair."

Mock, however, proposed a somewhat different scenario.

He said the School Committee met earlier and voted to adjust the assessment down by $54,000 to a total of $6,094,597, including high-school building project debt.

That left a $38,500 gap with the ball in the other court.

He made a case for the district's position, explained what would happen next if Town Meeting rejected the assessment, and predicted that at some point, the town would have to raise revenue versus making cuts to balance its budget, provide municipal services people want and to sustain a quality school system as district assessments continue to rise.

"A lot of people have tried to get this number to an acceptable level," Selectman Robert Prescott said. "Now, we're $38,000 apart," and he found it "difficult to squabble over," he said.

Selectmen were split on the issue, he said.

A former longtime School Committee member, Prescott said "finding savings" often balanced the school budget. But it seems the increases the previous district put off are starting to re-surface now in the three-year-old regional school district.

Besides the enrollment-based assessment split spelled out in the regional agreement, the town agreed to pay an added amount to bridge the distance between its historic, per-student spending and Ayer's via a phased-in payment plan.

As Mock explained earlier, Shirley's costs were offset some by an escrow account that Ayer pays into, in effect compensating Shirley for its fair share of the remaining middle-school debt.

But Prescott said the kind of percentage increases the town faced this year and which the superintendent predicted would go up next year and thereafter can't be sustained over time.

Solving the problem calls for town and school officials to start working together "much earlier" in the year as the two entities begin building their budgets, he said.

In the end, Town Meeting approved the district's amended amount of $6,094,597, with the added money to come from free cash.

School Committee Chairwoman Joyce Reischutz thanked Town Meeting for supporting the schools.

Town Meeting will reconvene next Monday at 7:15 p.m. in the Ayer-Shirley Middle School auditorium.