AYER -- At the second hearing on the topic, held Tuesday night, Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock outlined a plan which calls for Ayer taxpayers to share the debt service Shirley bears for the Shirley Middle School. It's a critical component of the long-term borrowing portfolio between the towns as the district advocates for it's proposed $56 million renovation to the Ayer-Shirley Regional High School.
Of that sum, the district suggests $19.6 million would be borne by the towns, with the remaining two-thirds of the school overhaul cost covered by the state. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has yet to decide on what share of the project it will bear.
The Page Hilltop Elementary School was the setting for the second public hearing on the funding proposal. The first hearing was held at Shirley Middle School last Wednesday.
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 bleed and the aged condition of the Ayer-Shirley High School, coupled with low construction costs and "very, very low" borrowing rates, Mock implored "the time is right" to pull the trigger on the high-school renovation project.
The School Committee voted overwhelmingly in April to keep the status quo at Ayer-Shirley Regional High School in that the space is being used strictly for
The Shirley Middle School, operational since 2003, educated only Shirley children for its first seven years. For the last three years, the school served both Ayer and Shirley students.
Shirley's original debt service on the school was $5.6 million. After fiscal 2013, $3.26 million in debt remains to be paid. At this time, that debt is borne strictly by Shirley taxpayers.
The middle-school facility is owned by the Town of Shirley. The high-school facility is owned by the Town of Ayer. Both buildings are leased to the district.
The existing Ayer and Shirley regional school agreement contemplates how to share newly incurred debt for new school projects launched by the district, but is silent on how to share pre-existing debt on pre-regionalization (pre July 1, 2011) construction.
And the law doesn't permit Ayer to directly pick up the debt service of its neighboring town. Hence, a new way to skin the cat has emerged.
It's proposed that for the next 13 years, Ayer will pay not only its share of the high-school project (with the price tag split roughly 60/40 between Ayer and Shirley taxpayers) but that Ayer will also pick up a portion of Shirley's net high-school project contributions to adjust for what they say is Ayer's "fair share" of the Shirley's middle school debt service.
The proposal calls for Ayer to pick up $178,000 starting in fiscal 2014. The amount slowly ebbs over the 13-year time frame. The last catch-up payment would be $122,030 in fiscal 2026. The total amount Ayer would bear over those 13 fiscal years is $1.95 million.
It's estimated that the payment approach would cause "cash back" to Shirley for 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 against Shirley's high school capital debt assessment.
Mock said the goal is to correct the inequity now. "Ayer would pay if it could share directly" in Shirley's middle school debt service, said Mock.
The proposal still needs voter approval in both towns. First, the matter goes before voters at the towns' respective fall Town Meetings. Shirley's is set for Sept. 24, Ayer's is set for Oct. 22. Then the split goes before the voters for a special two-town cumulative or blended vote, tentatively set for Nov. 17 but still subject to final confirmation with the towns.
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 the Ayer Selectmen and Finance Committee on Wednesday night and that the matter would be suggested for inclusion on the agenda for the Monday, Sept. 10, Shirley Selectmen's meeting.
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."
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 currently offered. "That ultimately reduces everyone's cost," said Conley.
After the hearing closed, Mock suggested -- and strongly emphasized the speculative nature of future 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 the average Shirley home valued at $265,000, the tax impact in fiscal 2017 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 renovation projects are in the future for say 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, tentatively, on Nov. 17, said Mock. First he needed to touch base with the respective town administrators to ensure there's no conflict.