SHIRLEY -- If there is strength in numbers, then the first Regional Leadership Advisory Group meeting of 2014 indicates a strong commitment to resolving Ayer's, Shirley's and the Ayer Shirley Regional School District's short- and long-term budget issues.
Present at the meeting were the two towns' administrators and accountants, five members of the Shirley and three members of the Ayer Finance Committees, one Shirley and two Ayer selectmen, four school committee members, the school superintendent and the school finance director.
School Superintendent Carl Mock started the meeting by laying out the school district's concerns about the fiscal realities the school district faces. Part of the dilemma, he said, shows an "increasingly happy ending of one entity and not a very bright one for the other two," a comment he later qualified by saying that he did not mean to say that Ayer had not contributed greatly to the regional school district.
"I am just saying the reality is that Ayer would be more comfortable than the district or Shirley. I did not mean to say that they did not do more than their share. (Ayer has) been a great partner on all of this," he later affirmed.
A lopsided formula
In a chart of fiscal 2015, which begins July 1, Mock introduced each town's assessment increases based on Net School Spending plus the five-year "phase-in" of Net School Spending (NSS) over each town's Required Local Contribution (RLC) that would bring Shirley to the target cost share with Ayer.
The total increase in the two towns' RLCs would be wholly inadequate, Mock said, so he had school finance director Evan Katz add increments of $100,000 to show how it gets shared in the phase-in NSS apportionment of 64/36 Ayer/Shirley. The $761,075 cumulative total would be for a level-funded budget split at roughly $353,047 for Ayer, and $408,028 for Shirley.
In a breakdown of the ASRSD Assessment Increase for fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2019, the combined Ayer RLC, phase-in reduction, and NSS>RLC total $297,000 in fiscal 2016. For Shirley, the fiscal 2016 RLC, phase-in increase, and NSS>RLC total $403,000.
That would bring the district total to $699,847. The split would be 60/40 by fiscal 2016, and 56/44 by fiscal 2017, the last year of the phase-in.
As Mock explained it, that would be about a 50 percent increase in Ayer's tax levy and a 100 percent increase in Shirley's tax levy every year. The increases would be about $700,000, or some three percent, for each year for the district.
"We tried to say if we needed $700,000 a year, this is what we will see play out in the next few years," said Mock. After fiscal 2017, the RLC's would be at or near the state target, he said.
"The problem with it is that, that is all of Shirley's tax levy and new growth as we estimated them. The tax levy and new growth is about $320,000 per year, and for Ayer is about $800,000. So in this kind of a scenario the school is looking for about half of what Ayer has available to it and all of what Shirley has."
"That reflects the problem that you can't maintain appropriate municipal services in both towns and the school district. I don't know how you do it," he said.
"If you take the tax levy and new growth and divide that by the foundation enrollment number of students, then Ayer has twice as much per kid as Shirley does. Going forward, I don't know how that is sustainable."
What to do?
"A piece of the conversation we need to have is to have the towns ask the taxpayers, what services do you want and how do you want to pay for it?," suggested school committee chair Pat Kelly.
At that, Shirley Selectman Kendra Dumont balked, citing "a credibility issue to get an override and the amount of tax rate people are paying now."
She and Shirley Town Administrator Patrice Garvin mentioned that the town is proposing making some tough cuts to be somewhat sustainable. But, Dumont added, "We need to hold the people responsible for what they promised us with regionalization. And that is when we need to bring the legislators in because other towns won't regionalize if they see what we are going through financially."
Ayer Finance Committee Chair Scott Houde pointed out that Ayer taxpayers contributed to the phase-in for Shirley, the remaining debt exclusion for the middle school, and the high school building, and then wondered out loud what to do.
Shirley doesn't have the tax base to have a split tax rate, he said.
Houde added, however, that while Ayer is nearly at its build-out capacity, Shirley has more room to build and so may, in the future, have a higher tax rate.
Mock responded that he does not think that Ayer should prop up Shirley, but that any formula that has any significant portion based on the number of students from the two towns, must take into account the dollars behind each of those students.
"It's a flawed formula," he said.
Coming up with solutions
When Ayer Selectman Pauline Conley asked how other regional agreements are worded, Kelly explained that the school committee is in the process of pulling up that information.
"We want viable communities and part of that is active, exciting schools and 'we are in this all together,'" said school committee member Joyce Reischutz. "Property values are based on the schools. Yes, we all need to have operating towns, but there is a feeling here in this group of collective action to make us all come together. I hope everyone here is saying the same thing. It is important to everybody at this table that we end up achieving as much as we can.
"Think about creative things. It is very important to keep on this," she said, adding that perhaps the towns need to make some adjustments each year in a more "fluid" budget scenario.
At the suggestions of Houde and Swanton, the group decided to break the long- and short-term budget goals into two separate parts. Conley and Dumont agreed to represent their boards, and the two town accountants and town administrators volunteered to participate in a smaller group dedicated to long-term planning. The other entities agreed to submit the names of their representatives to Mock and to begin meeting regularly.
Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand offered to host a meeting of the individual town entities prior to meeting with the larger group to discuss the fiscal 2015 budget. Those meetings, he said, would provide details that could be brought back to the larger group.
Then, at Mock's suggestion, Swanton invited Mock and Katz to attend the March 11 Shirley Finance Committee meeting.