DEVENS - When the Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) met Nov. 29, the July 2012 MassDevelopment contract with the Harvard School Department was front and center.
Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee Chair Joyce Reischutz said that when the contract comes up for renewal, the Ayer-Shirley district would like to bid on it. Reischutz said a decade ago Shirley educated Devens' kindergarten through 8th grade student population, with all students then attending Ayer High School.
Though Harvard won first the secondary then the elementary school contracts in 2006 and 2009 respectively, the contracts have since been rolled into one contract signed this summer when "the whole-shebang went to Harvard," said Shirley selectman David Swain.
While JBOS Chair Tom Kinch of Devens suggested the Harvard contract would follow whatever jurisdiction eventually assumes governmental control of Devens "whoever that new party is," Reischutz thought otherwise. "It would have to go out to open bidding, I'd think," said Reischutz.
But while the disposition of the 4,400 acre Devens Regional Enterprise Zone remains up in the air, Reischutz confirmed that the Ayer-Shirley School District would be interested in bidding on the Devens contract "anytime the opportunity is there."
To prevent the appearance of "OK, they don't care' or 'they're not interested,' we thought it would be good to step forward and say 'Yes, we are interested," said Reischutz.
Kinch, Shirley JBOS representative Rico Cappucci, and JBOS Vice Chair Frank Maxant of Ayer unanimously voted to ask MassDevelopment to provide the panel with past and present Harvard education contracts. The six page contract, dated July 1, 2012, can be viewed on the Harvard School Committee website tab at www.psharvard.org (the posted version does not contain party signatures).
"It's a public document," said Cappucci. Cappucci wanted the Ayer-Shirley School District to be "prepared in the future to deal with that contract."
MassDevelopment Executive Vice President for Devens Operations George Ramirez cautioned that he didn't have the contract in front of him, but offered "the terms are pretty straight forward."
"We amended it but revisited a number of items in the contract," said Ramirez. Ramirez said the contract extends through June 30, 2015 with an automatic renewal clause "unless somebody requests a termination." In the event of notice of termination, a two year transition period would ensure a smooth transition of Devens students to another district.
"Are we ruling out any possibility that the Ayer Shirley Regional system can bid on the contract in 2015?" asked Cappucci.
"I'm not ruling anything out," said Ramirez.
"So we will be able to bid on it. I think it was invalid anyway. It was never put on the table," said Cappucci. "That has always been my issue. We need to explore that."
By overwhelming margins, Ayer and Shirley voters approved a $56 million improvement to the Ayer-Shirley High School in November. The towns will bear $19 million of the expense, with the balance provided by the state.
"If the communities are willing to put that kind of money into it, they're willing to work together to at least have a chance to bid on a contract like that," said Cappucci. "The automatic renewal makes it an issue for me. I don't speak for them and I don't intend to but the automatic renewal is very questionable."
"It was in there before," said Kinch. It's "very common" added Ramirez.
"So you can't say prior to June 30, 2015 that we want out?" asked Kinch.
"That's a fixed term," said Ramirez. "Yes. Most education contracts have a year or two or three transition time because it's not like any other contract. You can't just take kids and make them move."
Ramirez added that Devens students can opt to remain in Harvard through to graduation even if the contract switches to another school district. "I just accepted the last check from Shirley because one high school student was left from their 5 year period and here was a transition period," said Ramirez. "So while the contract terminated, this young man was still a senor and under the contract."
The same applied for Lunenburg students attending the Ayer and Shirley schools. "This is the last year with Lunenburg kids," said Reischutz. "They've got friends established there. You don't want to tell a child they have to go somewhere else."
"I guess the question is probably not well timed but is there intent to do an RFP at some point in time?" asked Kinch of future bidding opportunities.
But Cappucci pressed the point on the recent past, "We are an advisory board. We should have been able to advise the school committee that there's a contract on the table. I'm not even sure they could have bid on it. The schools were in a transition period that was hectic at best."
"My understanding is that MassDevelopment makes its decision in conjunction with an advisory body on Devens," added Swain.
"The ultimate decision is made by MassDevelopment," said Ramirez.
"For Ayer-Shirley, what MassDevelopment should be looking at is - you've got a brand new building with the latest and greatest, versus a 50 year old building that hasn't had anything done to it," said Swain, who happens to be a 1976 Bromfield graduate.
"I think it's up to the school committee to let MassDevelopment know that, too," added Swain. "Sitting in Boston, they may not know all the ins and outs."
Kinch said the Devens Education Advisory Committee "had a strong influence" on the MassDevelopment/Harvard contract. Reischutz said Ayer-Shirley School Committee member Michelle Granger serves on the DEAC.
Before the JBOS meeting adjourned and after Ramirez had left for the evening, Ayer selectman Gary Luca asked the board, "Does anyone feel it was a renegotiation? Do we have any legal standing to open that contract up?"
"That's why we have an attorney," said Cappucci. "But we should go to the school board and say 'It's really up to you people' because they have their own attorney."
"Maybe we can get something from our attorney saying it's an invalid contract," said Cappucci. "Instead of getting into a firefight, maybe we can get MassDevelopment to agree to re-negotiate in 2013. It would calm the waters a bit."
Kinch said the July 2012 contract "is a better economic deal for MassDevelopment then the prior one was."
"In their defense, there were a couple of factors weighing in on this," said Kinch. "The $300,000 transition fee cost was huge. There was pressure from the Devens community to have a longer contract. That was the pressure - not to defend them."
But Kinch opined, "Change one letter in a contract and that's a contract change."
"I agree," said Luca. "But I'm not a lawyer."
Cappucci suggested a "hidden issue" is the state's "new formula for rating schools." Cappucci ranked "1" on a scale of 1-5. "Ayer-Shirley is 2, so both are acceptable. It's not like we're a 3, 4 or 5. If you're level 2 and you're building this brand new facility, I'd think it would impact the next level you go to. Otherwise we're just throwing money out the window."
Cappucci said Ayer and Shirley are married by the regional school system "whether we like it or not. We've got to make it work." Cappucci acknowledged the Nov. 17 two-town vote to approve the Ayer-Shirley high school project "says a lot."
Follow Mary Arata on twitter.com/maryearata.