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Voters updated on school district regionalization plan

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SHIRLEY — On the seventh and final night of Annual Town Meeting, Shirley School District Regionalization Planning Committee member Michael Swanton gave voters an update.

Shirley’s study committee, established in 2007, formed a joint planning board with Ayer and Lunenburg that meets regularly, Swanton said. The aim is to form a three-town, K-12 regional school district, he noted.

The committee last reported to the town at the Special Town Meeting in April, Swanton said. This time, the report included a $25,000 funding request. The money will help pay legal expenses to frame a regionalization agreement, he explained. Similar amounts have been approved by Ayer and Lunenburg town meeting voters, he said.

“Why regionalize? Why now?” he asked, rhetorically.

The answer — in part — is escalating costs and aging school buildings, he said.

Historically, towns turn to the state School Building Authority (SBA) for funds to repair or replace school facilities, but there’s been a paradigm shift in recent years. Today, the SBA is more interested in creating large districts than assisting small ones, he said, and it encourages small, independent districts to regionalize.

Swanton didn’t mention building a regional high school, but that’s part of the long-range plan and has been discussed at ALS Regionalization Planning Board meetings and public information sessions in Ayer and Lunenburg.

Board members who met with SBA officials have said they came away with the strong sense the state wants the three districts to regionalize. All three towns have submitted proposals for renovation projects. The state typically reimburses a substantial percentage of the price tag for projects it approves.

At a recent regionalization forum in Ayer, school officials said the state’s funding trend today favors merged districts that serve 1,200 students or more.

In general, financial benefits hinge on economies of scale, Swanton said.

In addition to combined purchasing power and more resources to go around, regionalization would merge administrations. For example, each district has its own administrative staff, he said, but in a regional district, those positions are shared. “One superintendent, one special ed director, one business manager,” he said.

Also, a larger student population, especially at the high school level, offers options such as expanded curriculum and possibly incorporated special education programs. In addition, the state reimburses up to 90 percent of transportation costs (busing) to regional school districts, while providing no assistance to independent districts. “Transportation reimbursement could be as much as a million dollars,” Swanton said.

Final details such as cost and appearance will be hammered out in the regionalization agreement, Swanton said.

The committees will bring the draft agreement to town meeting voters in each town. If it passes muster, the document goes to the Department of Education for review. If the DOR approves it, the document comes back for final town approval, Swanton said.

The Finance Committee recommended favorably on the article. The regionalization effort represents “forward thinking and planning for the future,” said FinCom member Ellen Doiron. The Board of Selectmen also favored the article.

The voters agreed and the article passed.

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