SHIRLEY -- It wasn't a huge turnout, but a voter count of 127 was a substantial number for a Special Town Meeting. With 12 articles on the warrant, all of which eventually passed, the meeting lasted for about three hours and adjourned just after 10 p.m.

Most of the time was spent on the first three articles.

First up was not Article 1 but Article 9, which was moved up at a citizen's request. Courtney Hernandez, of Brandywine Lane, made a procedural motion to move the article to first place on the warrant for the sake of parents who had come specifically to vote on that article and had young children with them. Town Meeting readily agreed to do so.

Article 9 (considered first) sought to amend the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District agreement that Ayer and Shirley voters approved in March, 2010. Since then, there have been several amendments to the document.

Now in its second year, the district became operational on July 1, 2011. But the merged middle school launched before the region did, with Ayer students joining their Shirley counterparts at the Shirley Middle School for the previous school year.

It is from that sharing of a building -- now re-named the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School -- that the latest amendment proposal sprang.

Before discussion began, Regional School Committee Chairman Joyce Reischutz announced that the committee would not entertain amendments to the article, which must be worded precisely the same in the two member towns. Ayer voters will consider the question at their Special Town Meeting in late October, she explained.

School District Superintendent Carl Mock outlined the proposal, which is contingent on approval of the proposed high school building project. That issue will come up in November elections, but he made it clear the matter at hand was the amendment.

"This is not to debate or discuss the high school project." Mock began. But he explained why the tie-in was necessary. "This amendment will affect how the towns are assessed, if it passes," he said.

With the middle school now shared by the two member towns, the challenge was to find a way for Ayer to kick in its fair share toward remaining debt on the building, which the town of Shirley now shoulders alone. Because one municipality can't legally take on debt incurred by another, a conduit was sought that would allow it, Mock said. The nascent high school debt fit the purpose.

Mock presented figures to illustrate how the set-up would work. Basically, Shirley's portion of the projected high school debt would be offset by Ayer's taking on a portion greater than its assigned share of that debt until the middle school loan is paid off.

With state reimbursement expected to pick up 66 percent of the overall cost of the building project (that is, 70.25-percent of covered project costs) the $56.7 million high school building renovation and addition will round out to a local share of about $19. 4 million. That cost will be split between the two member towns per the formula in the agreement, currently 60-percent Ayer, 40-percent Shirley based on student enrollment.

The amendment would temporarily alter that formula to weight high school debt assessments more heavily toward Ayer, as a roundabout way for the two towns to share the middle school debt. "We thought this was a relatively easy solution," Mock said.

"Shirley's portion of the high school debt -- given the offset -- would fall below zero for the first couple of years," Mock continued. Ayer would pay well over its share for those two years, covering Shirley's share of the high school project debt and then some.

In practical terms, the difference between Shirley's capital assessment and the added amount paid in by Ayer for its capital assessment would about equal the amount Ayer would have paid toward Shirley's middle school debt if the two towns had incurred it together.

For those first two years -- beginning in fiscal 2014 if the high school project passes muster with voters and moves forward -- the amount accrued to Shirley via this arrangement would be about $189,000. "That amount would be set aside in a dedicated Stabilization Fund" and would go toward paying Shirley's share of the high school debt in later years," Mock said. 

As for exactly how that would happen, Mock later said it would be up to the School Committee and the town to work out an implementation plan

The upshot is that both towns would share equally in outstanding debts for both schools.

The question then becomes, why would Ayer want to do this?

Besides the "fairness factor," it's a common sense proposition, Mock said, given that Ayer would be looking at an estimated $3 million assessment for a combined middle and high school project whose projected cost would likely be over $70 million.

By comparison, a lower-cost, high school only project, with Ayer's share increased above 60-percent for a certain period of time, would be about $2 million. But it all hinges on the regional school district continuing to use the middle school building in Shirley as a shared facility.

"If it (high school project) doesn't pass, we don't know what will happen," Mock said.

Resident Kevin Hayes asked why the incremental assessment hike starts in fiscal 2013 rather than rolling back to the two previous years, when Ayer and Shirley students started sharing the middle school.

Mock characterized it as a politically correct balance. The premise was that Shirley kids occupied the building for seven years and the town had made seven payments on its debt for the building. Once the plan tied into the high school project, the idea was to "move forward," not back. Besides, there's a sense that in terms of the regional agreement, Ayer has carried "more than its fair share" for the first five years of the new region, he said.

Resident John Oelfke asked about the debt exclusion that Shirley would be asked to consider for the high school project. He wanted to know how much the amount would be and whether it would be lower as a result of this amendment.

Mock said it doesn't quite work that way. The region borrows the total cost to fund the project and assesses the communities accordingly, he explained.

But Town Treasurer Kevin Johnston indicated that the debt-exclusion picture might indeed look better with the amendment than without it. "If we vote for this, would our town be responsible for less debt? The answer is yes," he said.

Before Town Moderator George Knittel called for a vote, Selectmen Chairman Andy Deveau stepped up to clarify the board's position, as they previously promised to do on Town Meeting floor. In a brief, pre-STM meeting, the three-member board voted unanimously to recommend favorable action, he said. The Finance Committee also supported it, said acting Chairman Mike Swanton.

The motion passed, 113-3.