SHIRLEY -- With Ayer Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock, Finance Director Evan Katz and School Committee representatives at the table, the Finance Committee tried one more time to tackle an issue town officials have been wrestling with for weeks: The seemingly unbridgeable gap between the 8.8 percent assessment hike the district is asking the town to pay this year and the 4.4 percent increase built into the town budget for it.
The difference amounts to $200,00.
But the town is already facing a $138,000 deficit, despite cuts across-the-board.
Chairman Mike Swanton said the problem must be solved now or it will continue to escalate, year-to-year. But using unreliable, one-time resources such as free cash or state prison mitigation money to balance the budget is no solution, he said.
"We can't continue to create budgets not funded by recurring revenues," he said.
"How does the school trim its budget?" he asked.
Swanton also wanted to know if $100,000 of identified savings in the school budget would be applied to reduce assessments, which could cut $40,000 or so from the Shirley side. Not enough, but it would help.
Otherwise, the only go-to might be a Proposition 2 and a half tax override, a notion nobody in the room figured would fly this year, with the bill for the high school project due to hit town tax bills in July.
Ayer also faces a school-related tax hike but with a two-tiered tax system, the other district town can shift an "unfair share" of its tax burden to businesses, Swanton said. "We don't have that option" in Shirley, where the single-rate tax base is almost all residential.
"We knew these first couple of years would be difficult," ventured School Committee member Joyce Reischutz.
She restated the importance of add-ons that upped the school budget this year, including hiring a new high school special-education teacher for a Life Skills class with about 13 students. Without the new hire, those kids, now at the middle school, would have to be placed out of district, she said, costing more in the long run for tuition and transportation.
Swanton didn't argue with the logic, only the cost. "My concern is that (the increase) consumes more than the town's budget increases each year," he said. And if the trend continues, things will only get worse.
"We've decreased fiscal year 2015 spending," to build a responsible, sustainable budget, Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said. But while the town has made cuts in "every department," the school has raised its level of spending, she said.
"Our job as a district is not to tell you how" to pay the assessment, Mock said. Nor is it to take $400,000 of the school budget to "get Shirley down to a comfortable amount."
Not comfortable, affordable, Garvin countered.
But Mock said the answer to the dilemma, long-term, is a tax override that the school district and municipal government must champion together, albeit not this year.
Garvin shook her head. "The town can't sustain the (assessment percentage) increase you put on the table," she said, assuming it would continue to grow each year.
Selectman Robert Prescott said the percentage increases should start to taper off once Shirley's "catch-up" period is over, closing a per pupil spending gap with Ayer via incremental payments built into the assessment formula.
"This all has to be (done) together," Reischutz said. The alternative is a return to the "them versus us" environment that existed before the new regional school district was formed.
Nothing was agreed on or solved and it was not clear whether the School Committee will discuss reduction options or stick to the assessment as it stands.
The Finance Committee, for its part, did not take a vote but aims to carry the discussion forward in the hope of finding a solution, perhaps even a "plan B" if all else fails.
FinCom member Rebecca Boucher favored "standing up for what we believe in," which could be a version of, just say no.
Swanton said it's not in the town's best interest if the assessment question gets voted down at Town Meeting and ends up being addressed via a Super Town Meeting in which both district towns meet separately but vote on the issue at the same time.
But some at the table felt it was time to let Ayer folks know what Shirley's ability to pay truly is and if that happens at a Super Town Meeting, so be it.
Selectmen Chairman Kendra Dumont expressed frustration. In her view and Garvin's, the town has cut its budget substantially, still faces a deficit and yet the school district won't budge on the assessment.
"I feel like we have a school with a town around it," she said.