AYER -- "Help" was the collective plea heard from Ayer, Shirley and Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee members during Tuesday night's school budget hearing. Joining the full house were state Sen. Jamie Eldridge and state Rep. Sheila Harrington.
No questions were posed from the public during the budget hearing. Rather school and towns officials deliberated over Shirley's ability to cover its share of the school district assessment.
Competing factors complicate the situation for Shirley, which is due to enter the second year of a five-year repayment plan to ease into its assessment allotment. Shirley didn't pay an increased share of the overall assessment in the first year of the district started July 1, 2011. In fiscal 2014, Shirley's buy-in share increases by $114,000.
Meanwhile, Shirley's state-calculated required local contribution (RLC) for education is also increasing to match DESE-formulated "target spending" levels based on a community's ability to pay (based on aggregate property values and personal income levels).
Overall, Shirley's assessment is to increase $556,000 (or by 11 percent) to $5.5 million. Challenging Shirley's ability to cover that cost is its lesser tax levy growth estimated at $275,000 to $300,000.
Ayer's assessment is to increase by $239,000 (a 2.8 percent increase) to $8.8 million. School Superintendent Carl Mock noted that Ayer has been "paying a little above the state RLC.
Asked to find $337,000 in cuts by the Shirley Finance Committee, Mock identified "potentially doable" cuts including $100,000 in health insurance cost savings despite January projections. "Not advisable" would be $150,000 worth of staff layoffs and forced reductions through attrition.
School Committee Chairman Joyce Reischutz said unless and until the state provides "more solid" aid figures, the committee would ultimately certify its $23 million budget (up 4.5 percent or $998,000 with debt payment factored in).
Ayer Selectman Chairman Jim Fay asked if the budget included pay raises, adding it's "probably not a good year for raises." Reischutz said it wasn't a topic suitable for open session comment. The school committee is scheduled to enter contract negotiations with the teachers bargaining unit on Wednesday night.
Ayer Selectman Pauline Conley encouraged the committee vote to certify its budget as presented "and then let the towns try to figure out where the money is going to come from."
"Ayer's here. We're ready to try to work with the school committee," said Conley. "But Shirley needs to tell us what Shirley's going to do before we can even fathom a solution to the funding situation." Shirley has yet to provide to Ayer officials a draft fiscal 2014 budget.
Eldridge said while he supports the governor's proposed tax increases, they face an "uncertain fate" before the legislature. Hanging in the balance could be the governor's projected Chapter 70 (funding for grades K-12) increases.
However, Eldridge said the legislature generally bumps-up assistance for special education "circuit breaker" assistance. Final numbers are about a month away.
"I wish we had a number agreed to by both branches today but that's not the legislative process," said Eldridge.
"Everyone is very much on the edge," on state revenue collections, said Harrington. Collections appear to be trending above the governor's benchmarks, she said. At a meeting of regional school districts that morning, Harrington said the group was advised "whatever the governor's budget is, throw it out because it's not going to look anything like this."
School Committee member Dan Gleason said that state Rep. Jennifer Benson said hopes to downwardly-adjust Shirley's RLC levels "didn't look favorable." Gleason recalled Benson advised the Shirley Finance Committee on Monday that two-thirds of the cities and towns were meeting or exceeding their minimum RLC levels.
Eldridge said he's heard no talk of revising the RLC formula. However, Eldridge empathized that Shirley's "acceleration is rather aggressive."
Dumont claims Maxant move a "vendetta"
Before the public hearing, a hail of emails ensued throughout the day over a draft Ayer proposal for providing collateralized relief to Shirley. Last week, Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabree proposed to the selectmen that Ayer could lend Shirley $500,000 in Ayer Urban Development Block Grant (UDAG) monies in return for a lien against a piece of Shirley municipal property.
The selectmen haven't voted on the proposal. Still, on Monday, Ayer selectman Frank Maxant emailed Gov. Deval Patrick and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Gregory Bialecki for assistance with the plan.
Maxant asked the state to consider conveying to Shirley-Devens lands the town once had jurisdictional control over within the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ). Maxant suggested the land could be sold by Shirley to repay the contemplated Ayer loan.
"Ayer's ability to help our neighbors is based on our strengths," said Maxant. Shirley selectman Kendra Dumont shut down Maxant's discussion, "I have to tell you I find this insulting."
Dumont said Shirley hadn't been consulted before Maxant made his request to the governor. Dumont said the idea was just another manifestation of Maxant's "vendetta against Devens." Maxant has repeatedly challenged state agency MassDevelopment, chaired by Bialecki, on its manner and approach to developing the DREZ lands.
Eldridge suggested "I strongly doubt" the idea would gain traction at the state level. Maxant said he'd exchanged emails with Bialecki earlier in the day and that the secretary stated he'd try to send a representative to the budget hearing. It wasn't to be, in the end.
Maxant's push to the governor's office "was not exactly my recommendation," said Gabree, who said Ayer had only had "informal discussion" on "some sort of UDAG loan."
"With some sort of collateralization," said Maxant.
Fay urged an end to the discussion calling the conversation "fruitless" since the "Ayer Board of Selectmen does not back that at this time."
Shirley FinCom member James Quinty said he'd perceived the RLC levels were never intended to "punish" those below set levels. He said "western Massachusetts doesn't' look like eastern Massachusetts." Quinty said to Harrington and Eldridge "I think they have to say 'Look you can't go above this line. I'll leave it up to you to find where that line should be."
School committee member Dan Gleason thanked the local lawmakers but said despite all the state's "rhetoric" in favor of school regionalization, financial support has been lacking. "It's bad policy of the state to put a community in the situation of needing an override," said Gleason. Gleason said a better idea is for the state to dangle palatable "carrots" in front of communities.
Perhaps assistance 'outside' the state budget could be included for newly regionalized districts feeling the pain, suggested Harrington.
Reischutz said greater state assistance -- or outright payment -- for out of district special education placements would save smaller districts from the "onslaught" of devastating expenses. "It should go into a central pot."
Eldridge said that's the purpose of Circuit Breaker funds. "IT doesn't go far enough" to cover the cost of residential placements, responded Reischutz. "We took a hit this year."
Dumont noted that the nearby North Middlesex Regional School District is also dealing with financial concerns between member towns. She suggested the Patrick administration send money to ease the woes and avoid a public relations message that may chill the mood to regionalize services like education. "He doesn't want us knocking on his door," said Dumont.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.