The Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee held a public hearing last month to gather opinions on a proposed modification to the Ayer Shirley Regional Agreement.
The proposed change, brought by school committee member Jim Quinty, would delete from "Section X: Incurring of Debt," the language that specifies that for an issuance of debt greater than two percent of the school district's operating budget, the school committee could, by majority vote, choose to follow the process that appears in G.L. chapter 71, section 16, subsection (n).
Subsection (n) allows for the school district to incur debt for the purposes of land acquisition, building repairs, or construction provided that the school committee's vote is approved at an election by a majority of registered voters in the member towns.
That was the procedure used by the school committee when it asked Ayer and Shirley voters to approve a feasibility study for the renovation of what is now Ayer-Shirley Regional High School, in both February and June of 2011.
In the second of the two votes, Ayer voters approved the measure by 358 votes; Shirley voters opposed it by 147 votes. The combined vote of 1,020-809 in favor meant that the measure passed.
For the project to proceed, both towns later voted to approve the renovation project, as well as to approve separate debt exclusion questions in each town.
What the deletions would mean
Eliminating the current language in Section X of the regional agreement would change it to say that, "except for the incurring of temporary debt in anticipation of revenue, the process that appears in subsection (d) of chapter 71, section 16 will be followed.
That subsection requires that for the district to incur debt, "written notice of the amount of the debt and of the general purposes for which it was authorized shall be given to the board of selectmen in each of the towns comprising the district not later than 7 days after the date on which the debt was authorized by the district committee."
It states that the boards of selectmen would have 60 days after the date on which the debt was authorized to, should they so choose, "hold a town meeting for the purpose of expressing disapproval of the amount of debt authorized by the district committee."
If either town meeting disapproved of the amount of debt authorized by the school committee, "the debt shall not be incurred and the district school committee shall prepare another proposal which may be the same as any prior proposal and an authorization to incur debt therefore."
Currently, that procedure applies only to debt that is less than two percent of the total school budget. At the time of the feasibility votes, the transitional school district budget was only $300,000. The feasibility study votes in both towns permitted the school district to borrow up to $750,000, most of which was funded by the Massachusetts State Building Authority.
The current budget of the regional school district is over $25,000,000, so two percent of its budget today would be about a half million dollars.
"Had the vote for a feasibility study of the renovation of the Ayer Shirley Regional High School building been held under (the proposed language changes), either town could have defeated the ballot initiative at a town meeting," said school district superintendent Carl Mock.
Audience and committee feedback
Shirley resident Bob Eramo was one of seven members of the public present for the meeting.
"What I am hearing is that by changing or rewording it, we would now have to get two 'yes' votes from Shirley -- one to move forward with the vote, and then to move forward from the debt exclusion," he said. "To get two votes for anything ... is hard to do.
"The only thing this simple man can come up with," he said, "is that a simple collective vote puts pressure on the rest of the community to vote positive on the debt exclusion, as was obvious from the last election."
"Since we're a two-town region, not a three-town, if it is a 'no,' it's a 'no,'" said school committee member Joyce Reischutz, referring to the fact that, regardless of which subsection (n) or (d) is utilized, if either town votes against supporting a debt exclusion to pay off incurred debt, it would kill the deal.
"The issue that I have is, we are now a regionalized system, where united we stand, divided we fall," said Craig Erban, owner of Erban Associates Real Estate. "It almost seems to me we are putting in a division."
"That doesn't set well with me. If we are in it, we're in it. If we don't like what we're in, then go about to change what we are in ... If we made a mistake doing what we did, don't start picking away little pieces of it to give back control that we now have."
"I think we made the right decision to regionalize our school system," said Shirley Finance Committee Chair Mike Swanton (and former chair of the School Regionalization Committee). "I think that most people would now agree with that."
Although the district needs some flexibility in the way it executes its agreement in order to manage changes in the environment, "the downside of having the votes be at town meeting," said Swanton, "would be that you don't typically get as many people as you would get in a town vote."
Using the ballot method would likely get greater overall participation in the decision process. That was the Regionalization Committee's intent, he said.
A moot issue?
Swanton and Mock both alluded to the fact that, regardless of the language in the regional agreement, Massachusetts G.L. Title XII (Education), chapter 71, section 14D, entitled "Agreement; approval of indebtedness," states that "the regional district school may, by vote of two-thirds of all its members, require that the approval of any particular authorized issue of indebtedness shall be by the registered voters of the member towns of the district pursuant to the provisions of clause (n) of section sixteen rather than pursuant to the provisions of clause (d) of said section sixteen."
That, said Mock, would supersede any language in the regional agreement that removes that option.
Quinty said that his purpose for requesting the hearing was that he wanted to be sure that the proposal was aired with public input prior to any vote put forward at an annual town meeting. The committee has not yet voted to put the proposed language changes before the towns.