SHIRLEY -- The Regional School Committee held the first of two public hearings at the middle school last week to air a proposed amendment to the regional agreement that will appear as an article on Ayer and Shirley Special Town Meeting warrants this fall. A second hearing was held in Ayer this week.
In a nutshell, the article asks if voters want the town of Ayer to pay its fair share of Shirley's remaining middle-school debt and lays out a plan for doing so via the nascent high school building project.
Operating as the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School, the building houses more kids from Ayer than Shirley, so the notion of splitting what's left of the debt between the two towns makes sense.
But according to Superintendent Carl Mock, one municipality can't legally pay another's debt, so Ayer's pay-in vehicle would be to restructure the capital debt for the high-school building project.
Once approved by district voters and backed by debt exclusions in each member town, that debt would be "owned" by the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, which leases rather than owns all four schools, Mock said.
As he explained at the recent hearings, the project debt percentage split, set at 60/40 in the regional agreement and based on enrollment numbers, would be upped for Ayer for the duration of the middle-school debt period, while Shirley's share would be commensurately lower.
Given that the conduit is the high-school project, the
When Shirley selectmen discussed the warrant article at their meeting the previous week, Chairman Andy Deveau said he found the proposal "confusing," and that Mock had not dispelled his misgivings.
Not for the first time, Deveau expressed concern over a late-breaking change of plans that re-introduced Shirley's aging Lura A. White Elementary School into the project equation.
The old building, previously said to be past its renewable prime, was to have been mothballed, perhaps sold, and removed from the district's map, which would then consist of three versus four schools. Released from its upkeep, Shirley might even make money on the old building, Deveau reasoned.
The original scenario
With middle-school students from both towns housed in the renovated Ayer facility and Lura A. White Elementary School out of commission, the middle school in Shirley would be retrofitted to take its place. Part of a package plan touted throughout the regionalization process, the three interdependent scenarios all hinged on the existing building in Ayer -- redone and perhaps added to -- continuing as a combined middle and high school.
Then, in March, a year after the regional agreement was sealed, the ASRSD Building Committee voted to pursue a high-school only option and the middle school's status as a shared facility was set for the foreseeable future.
The new deal didn't set well with Shirley officials.
When Deveau asked Mock if there's a contingency plan outlining what happens to the middle school setup if the high-school building project doesn't pass, Mock told him there's no such plan in the works.
While they recommended favorable action on the other 11 articles on the warrant, selectmen held off making a recommendation on the regional agreement amendment. Citing the need to review an updated version of the article submitted earlier in the day, they agreed to make that call on Town Meeting floor.
There were no Shirley town officials or their representatives at the School Committee's public hearing last week. In fact, only two people showed up, both of whom were members of the Ayer Finance Committee, Brian Muldoon and Chairman Scott Houde.
In a later conversation with a Nashoba Publishing reporter, Mock summed up major points from his presentation.
"One town can't pay another's debt, and certainly not as a debt-excluded expense," he said. "The middle school is an asset of the town, not the district."
For Ayer to "share" Shirley's debt, "we need a mechanism," Mock explained.
Sketching the proposal, he said Ayer would be asked to take on a higher portion of the high-school debt and Shirley's share would go down for the remaining middle-school debt period. Thus, the added Ayer contribution will be "proportional to what it would be if they could actually pay part of the middle school debt," he said.
In effect, the total spent on the two schools will be shared. And in the view of school officials, administrators and legal counsel, the high-school debt is the way to do it, he said.
Asked about a buy-in, Mock said that avenue was not proposed and would be a "complex process, if even possible."
Testing Ayer's political waters, he said folks there are only interested in helping Shirley pay for the middle school if the high-school issue is resolved in the process.
And if the high school project doesn't pass?
"We honestly don't know."
Deveau doubts that. In a telephone interview Tuesday evening, he said he suspects there's a contingency plan in the wings and that it may reprise the original. That is, moving the middle school back to the high-school building in Ayer and closing Lura A. White Elementary School.
It's no secret he and the other selectmen are leery of the new plan. "It's no different than when (regionalization) was first presented," he said. "We wanted an accurate accounting ... the actual costs."
At the time, building project costs were estimated between $34 and $36 million, far from the $57 million current projection. Plus $2 million to upgrade the sports stadium, adding bleachers, field lights and a concession stand with toilets. Since the added cost won't be covered by MSBA, the state agency that has agreed to reimburse the district for more than half of project costs, those items will be requested separately on debt exclusion ballots.
Deveau said it was "disturbing" that School Committee members elected to represent the town were "off in their figures by tenfold."
Whether early estimates were plausible or wild guesses, voters' decision to regionalize was based on the lower figures, Deveau said.
But he doesn't believe the new figures, either.
Deveau said townspeople were sold on a scenario that included closing the Lura A. White School, which was "falling down around us" and at an estimated fix-up cost of $25 million, not worth saving. "Now, we're told it can be fixed for $3 million?" It doesn't add up, he said.
"Even now I'm not convinced that they are being forthcoming on the actual cost," he said. For example, full disclosure must include projected costs for rescuing Lura A. White School and to fix up Page Hilltop Elementary School in Ayer.
"Part of the problem is they don't want people to know what the bottom line really is," Deveau surmised. Citing a July Boston Herald article that highlights the issue statewide, he described an education system that's off-kilter. Taxpayers "buy in for a better product," he said. But as spending went up dramatically, MCAS test results "flatlined."
Noting that Shirley's educational problems were not solved by building a new middle school, as envisioned, Deveau said he doesn't buy the notion that the high school makeover will solve the choice-out problem, either.
"All I'm looking for is the truth," he concluded. But information voters are given is "skewed," he said, quoting former Ayer Superintendent George Frost, who said, "We are educators ... that's what we do."
What Deveau does, or seeks to do, on the other hand, is come up with a "sustainable" plan for the town's future and its educational system. In his view, this is not that plan.
Asked if the selectmen aim to meet with school district representatives to hash out their differences before the Sept. 24 Town Meeting, Deveau said no, but he figured the leadership team -- consisting of school district and Ayer and Shirley town officials, the two town administrators and others -- would get together to discuss those issues.
But Mock said the only upcoming pre-Town Meeting events on the calendar are another presentation at a joint session of Ayer Finance Committee and selectmen Wednesday night and "at some point" a return visit to the Shirley Finance Committee.
He also reiterated there's no "contingency plan" if the high-school project fails. Discussions and presentations from here on will all center on the project itself, he said.