SHIRLEY -- With a Special Town Meeting set for next week that has just one item on the warrant -- the regional school assessment -- ASRSD Superintendent Carl Mock and School Committee Chairman Joyce Reischutz came to the selectmen's meeting Monday night to update the board on pending revised assessment figures for the two member towns.
Ayer and Shirley each bypassed the original assessment bids at their respective annual town meetings, but both were friendly put-offs.
Ayer Town Meeting rejected its assessment at the School Committee's request. Shirley downsized a proposed increase of $550,000 to a more manageable $350,000, with a favorable nod from the school district. But Mock said at the time that number might be too low. It still looks that way now, he said, with an increase of about $456,000 instead.
The understanding to begin with was that the regional assessments presented last month were not final. New figures would be forwarded after state legislators voted in their respective budgets this month, with different required local contribution (RLC) numbers anticipated than previous figures based on the governor's budget: higher for Ayer, lower for Shirley.
After the two town meetings, the School Committee re-certified its $5.3 million budget, re-setting the clock for the assessment process.
Wednesday night, with new RLC numbers on the table, the committee would do "a bit more" to revise its final assessment figures, Mock told the selectmen.
He couldn't say what Shirley's new RLC number would be, however, until after that meeting, Mock said, only that it would be lower. "It seems like Ayer's will increase by $26,000 and Shirley's will decrease by $97,000," he said.
Combined with net spending, Ayer's total assessment is expected to go up by $150,000, while Shirley's goes down by the same amount, Mock said. But that doesn't meet Shirley's top-dollar benchmark, which Chairman David Swain said was the goal he hoped the School Committee would strive for, if necessary by cutting the school budget.
"We've worked since the end of January based on the governor's budget, with the RLC as the biggest factor," Mock said. "We've spoken to both Finance Commitees and select boards," he said, calling the new estimate "certainly in the ballpark" in terms of the recommendation he expected to make to the School Committee later in the week.
But Swain said that's not good enough. "I think the town has increased its pay-out (for education) significantly, and we don't have any more money," he said. "We've made cuts and in my opinion its time for the school to do the same."
Swain said the number he's hoping for would match the one Town Meeting approved. Otherwise, the only option at this point would be to tap the stabilization fund, which he's extremely reluctant to do. "We've worked hard to build up the stabilization fund," he said, and we're looking to the School Committee for help."
Trimming the assessment increase to $350,000 would translate to about $175,000 cut from the school budget, Mock said. "I don't think we'll get there."
Over the last two years, the school has lost personnel and dipped deep into its reserves, which could be as low as $250,000 this year, Mock continued, citing extraordinary and unexpected special education tuition and transportation costs.
Selectman Kendra Dumont sided with Swain. "I'd have a hard time asking...to take money out of the stabilization fund, which would only make next year worse," she said. "There's nothing more to cut."
Selectman Robert Prescott said he'd defer comment until after the School Committee meeting. "Let them do their jobs," he suggested.
Reischutz seemed to stop just short of suggesting a tax hike to solve the problem.
"We've worked to decrease special ed costs by reducing the number of out of district placements," she ventured. But it's a losing proposition if the new region doesn't make good. "If we're not seen as working to improve education..." but instead do less, that would be a step backward that the district can't afford to take, she posited. "We need to keep up," as do town services," she said. "It's a small amount."
"Small amounts add up," Swain responded. The town has kicked in "a tremendous amount" for education this year and was hit harder than the school district by the governor's "9-C" cuts, losing over $100,000 in state aid, "far more than the schools," he said.
Asked if there was any word on whether MCI prison mitigation money might come through, Swain said no, and there's little chance now for any other new revenue, either. "It's grim reality," he said.
Swain asked Mock what would happen if Town Meeting were to table the assessment until after the governor's budget is signed.
As of July 1, the Department of Education would set the assessment amount until a town budget is finalized, Mock answered. He didn't describe the worst case scenario - a super town meeting that would decide the matter based on the total vote of both towns - but he said the School Committee can likely "do something reasonable" to avoid it.
But in the end, "it's up to Town Meeting," he said.