DEVENS -- MassDevelpment's contract with the Harvard School Department took center stage at the Nov. 29 meeting of the Joint Boards of Selectmen.
Harvard won the secondary school contract in 2006 and the elementary school contract in 2009. The contracts were rolled into one contract that was signed in July.
Joyce Reischutz, chairman of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee said the district would like to bid on the contract when it comes up for renewal. A decade ago, she pointed out, Shirley educated Devens' kindergarten through eighth-grade student population, with all students then attending Ayer High School.
JBOS Chair Tom Kinch of Devens suggested the Harvard contract would follow whatever jurisdiction eventually assumes governmental control of Devens but Reischutz thought otherwise.
"It would have to go out to open bidding, I'd think," she said.
While disposition of the 4,400 acre Devens Regional Enterprise Zone remains up in the air, Reischutz said Ayer-Shirley would be interested in bidding on the Devens contract "anytime the opportunity is there."
Kinch, Shirley JBOS representative Rico Cappucci, and JBOS Vice Chair Frank Maxant of Ayer unanimously voted to ask MassDevelopment to provide the panel with past and present Harvard education contracts. The latest contract, dated July 1, 2012, can be viewed on the Harvard School Committee website tab at www.psharvard.org.
George Ramirez, MassDevelopment executive vice president for Devens Operations, cautioned that the terms of the contract "are pretty straightforward."
The contract extends through June 30, 2015, he said, with an automatic renewal clause, "unless somebody requests a termination." In the event of notice of termination, a two-year transition period would ensure a smooth transition of Devens students to another district.
"Are we ruling out any possibility that the Ayer Shirley Regional system can bid on the contract in 2015?" Cappucci asked.
"I'm not ruling anything out," Ramirez said. "I'm just answering your question directly."
"So we will be able to bid on it. I think it was invalid anyway. It was never put on the table," Cappucci said. "That has always been my issue. We need to explore that."
Ayer and Shirley voters overwhelmingly approved a $56 million improvement to the Ayer-Shirley High School in November. The towns will bear $19 million of the expense, with the balance provided by the state.
"If the communities are willing to put that kind of money into it, they're willing to work together to at least have a chance to bid on a contract like that," said Cappucci. "The automatic renewal makes it an issue for me. I don't speak for them and I don't intend to but the automatic renewal is very questionable."
Ramirez noted that the automatic renewal clause in common in such contracts.
In response to a question from Kinch, Ramirez explained that the parties cannot opt out of the Harvard contract before June 30, 2015.
"That's a fixed term," he said. "Most education contracts have a year or two or three transition time because it's not like any other contract. You can't just take kids and make them move."
Ramirez added that Devens students can opt to remain in Harvard through to graduation even if the contract switches to another school district.
"I guess the question is probably not well timed but is there intent to do an RFP at some point in time?" Kinch asked about future bidding opportunities.
Cappucci continued to press the point that the contract was signed without input from the JBOS.
"We should have been able to advise the school committee that there's a contract on the table," he said. "I'm not even sure they could have bid on it. The schools were in a transition period that was hectic at best."
Shirley Selectman David Swain noted that "MassDevelopment makes its decision in conjunction with an advisory body on Devens."
"The ultimate decision is made by MassDevelopment," Ramirez said.
Swain, a 1976 Bromfield graduate, suggested that "for Ayer-Shirley, what MassDevelopment should be looking at is -- you've got a brand new building with the latest and greatest, versus a 50 year old building that hasn't had anything done to it. I think it's up to the school committee to let MassDevelopment know that, too. Sitting in Boston, they may not know all the ins and outs."
Kinch said the Devens Education Advisory Committee "had a strong influence" on the MassDevelopment/Harvard contract, and Reischutz pointed out that Ayer-Shirley School Committee member Michelle Granger serves on the DEAC.
After Ramirez had left but before the JBOS meeting adjourned, Ayer selectman Gary Luca asked the board, "Does anyone feel it was a renegotiation? Do we have any legal standing to open that contract up?"
"That's why we have an attorney. But we should go to the school board and say 'It's really up to you people' because they have their own attorney," Cappucci said.
"Maybe we can get something from our attorney saying it's an invalid contract. Instead of getting into a firefight, maybe we can get MassDevelopment to agree to renegotiate in 2013. It would calm the waters a bit."
Kinch said the July 2012 contract "is a better economic deal for MassDevelopment then the prior one was."
"In their defense, there were a couple of factors weighing in on this. The $300,000 transition fee cost was huge," he said. "There was pressure from the Devens community to have a longer contract. That was the pressure -- not to defend them."
"Change one letter in a contract and that's a contract change," Kinch countered.
"I agree," said Luca. "But I'm not a lawyer."
Follow Mary Arata on twitter.com/maryearata.