AYER -- On Tuesday, Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock outlined for a second time a plan to have Ayer taxpayers share in the debt service Shirley bears on Shirley Middle School. It's a critical centerpiece of the long term bonding portfolio between the towns as the district forges forward with its planned $56 million renovation to Ayer-Shirley Regional High School.
Of that sum, $19.6 million is to be borne by the towns, with the remaining two-thirds of the school-overhaul cost covered by the Massachusetts State Building Authority (MSBA). The final figures have yet to be approved by the state.
The second of two public hearings on the funding proposal was held Tuesday at Page-Hilltop Elementary School in Ayer. The first hearing was held at Shirley Middle School Aug. 29.
Mock noted that the towns spend $2.3 million "to educate our resident students in other communities" between School Choice and enrollment in Nashoba Valley Technical High School. Between the student headcount and the condition of Ayer-Shirley High School, coupled with low construction costs and "very very low" borrowing rates, Mock said "the time is right" to pull the trigger on the high-school project.
The School Committee voted overwhelmingly in April to keep the high school for upperclassmen only and the district's middle school in Shirley. Mock said that's when an alleged imbalance between the towns was first spotted.
The Shirley Middle School, operational
That debt is being paid by Shirley taxpayers since the town owns the building. But with the commitment to a high-school-only retooling of Ayer-Shirley High, Shirley Middle School will be solidified as the middle school for the district.
The existing Ayer and Shirley regional school agreement contemplates new debt with new projects, but not existing debt on previous construction. The law doesn't permit Ayer to pick up the debt service of its neighbor.
So, a new approach has been identified via the proposed Ayer-Shirley Regional High School renovation project. It's proposed that for the next 13 years, Ayer will pay not only its share of the high-school project, about a 60/40 split between Ayer and Shirley taxpayers) but that Ayer will also pick up two-thirds of Shirley's net high-school project contributions, adjusted against Shirley's Middle School debt service. The proposal is for Ayer to pick up $178,000 in fiscal 2014.
The amount slowly drops over the 13th fiscal-year time frame to a payment of $122,030 in fiscal 2026. The total amount Ayer would pick up is $1.95 million based on fiscal 2012 data and on a "conservative" 4.5 percent bonding rate over those years.
The payment approach would bring "cash back" to Shirley in the first two years, totaling $280,000 between fiscal 2014 and 2015. The proposal calls for that money to be channeled into a new and separate stabilization fund and applied in future years to reduce Shirley's high school capital debt assessment.
Mock said "Ayer would pay if it could share directly," in Shirley's middle-school debt service.
It's contingent on passage of the building project by district-wide vote and passage of subsequent debt-exclusion ballots in each town. The articles are to be included in the towns' respective fall Town Meetings. Shirley's is set for Sept. 24; Ayer's is set for Oct. 22.
The language for the proposed warrant articles can be viewed on the district's website. Mock said a similar presentation was planned for a joint meeting of Ayer selectmen and Finance Committee on Wednesday night and that the matter would be presented for potential inclusion on the Shirley selectmen's meeting Monday, Sept. 10.
Building Committee Chairman and former Ayer Selectman Murray Clark said he strongly supports the approach. Clark said Ayer voters should support the plan as the "fair thing" to do.
"Without it, Ayer gets a free ride in a middle school. It's going to be our school as much as the high school is going to be Shirley's school," he said.
Selectman Pauline Conley asked that Shirley be asked to refinance their middle-school debt, if they haven't already, to take advantage of the favorable terms offered.
"That ultimately reduces everyone's cost," said Conley.
After the hearing closed, Mock suggested -- and strongly emphasized the speculative nature of tax rates -- that the total impact to the average Ayer homeowner, with a home valued at $272,000, would be $212 in fiscal 2017, for example. For the average Shirley home valued at $265,000, the tax impact in that year would be $194.
The towns would run neck and neck in that regard, a similarity which Mock said is "really quite remarkable."
The figures are anything but firm, Mock admits. But it's a stepping-off point for future discussions about what other capital projects are in the future for example for the Lura A. White or Page-Hilltop schools.
"You can foresee when these other projects might come to fruition," said Mock.
The regional vote could take place Nov. 17, said Mock.
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