AYER — “I like lemon danish,” said Ayer School Superintendent George Frost. “if you have a danish and a cup of coffee, we’ll come and talk in someone’s living room.”
Frost challenged the dozen or so audience members at Ayer High School Wednesday night to host small, intimate venues for him and members of the Regionalization Planning Board.
Preaching to a friendly audience, Frost says the board wants to seize every opportunity to field questions and concerns following the board’s two-year study into the merits of merging the Ayer, Shirley and Lunenberg school districts.
“Embedded in our culture is the sense that we want to educate our kids in our home commmunities and when you regionalize you loose a piece of that, there’s no question,” Frost said, “but what’s becoming more and more obvious to those involved in the day-to-day function of the schools is that the sustainability of increasing budgets is becoming a challenge.”
The Regional Planning Board’s presentation is available at www.alsregion.org. There was plenty of data to be absorbed within ts pages, including hard financial numbers based on an adjusted review of the blended current budgets for the three separate districts. While the numbers show a $600,000 savings based on worst-case cost and conservative revenue scenarios, the plan isn’t to provide rebates to the towns but to reinvest the savings into the district. Big ticket goals are to lower class sizes, increase program offerings, provide more technology and build a new regional high school.
The regionalization plan would educate a combined 3,500 students. From smallest to largest, 25-percent of the total headcount would hail from Shirley, 30-percent from Ayer and 46-percent from Lunenberg. The 4 present hometown elementary schools would remain. There’d be two middle schools (one shared between Ayer and Shirley and a second in Lunenburg) and one newly constructed regional high school with a total enrollment of 900-950 students. The three separate school superintendents and special education directors would be whittled to one each for the combined district.
Committee member Tom Casey noted that many don’t want to give up on the parochialism provided by the separate systems, but added “times have changed. We’re being proactive,” regarding the economic and scholastic benefits outlined. Driving forces at play include increasing academic demands, declining Ayer school enrollments, increasing costs and aging facilities. Casey explained it was the Board’s hope to present the final plan to the selectmen for each town in September and before town meetings for a vote in October.
Ayer selectman Carolyn McCreary praised the committee but cautioned, “I’m having a hard time getting to ‘yes’ on regionalization.” She cited a report that blames regionalized school districts for lower graduation rates, higher drop-out rates and poor attendance. Frost addressed the issues, piece by piece, citing his friendship and conversations with the report’s author who confirmed the criticism wasn’t aimed at a 3,500 student district. Furthermore, Frost explained the 10-year projection for the district was shrinkage down to some 2,500 students.
Total headcount alone isn’t the consideration, said Frost. He explained that he came from the regionalized Acton-Boxborough school district where the head count topped 5,700 when he left. And so Frost discounted a finding that the cited report negates the benefits of regionalized districts, “I would match Acton-Boxborough with any small high school. I would match it with any high school in the country. I think we have to read that report carefully.”
Beyond the data, concerns turned to Ayer voter’s mood and the political aspects of the proposal. “Consider what would happen if this vote fails,” warned Kathleen Preston of Calvin Street, alleging parents are presently pulling students out of the Ayer schools before the middle school grades in favor of out-of-district school choice placements. Frost responded that the push is as strong as ever to “annually try to improve our student experience of the prior year. We won’t stop that effort,” even during the two year transition period to the regional system, if approved.
Is it fair to compare the school regionalization project to the recently failed regional effort to approve zoning changes to Vicksburg Square on Devens between the towns of Ayer, Shirley and Harvard? Not according to Ayer School Committeeman Daniel Gleason, who contrasted the Devens vote in this way, “no one had articulated the benefit to the town.” Retired businessman Ed Kelley agreed, “(this) is 180-degrees different. They (Vicksburg Square proponents) wanted us to sign a blank check.”
Ayer School Committeeman Patrick Kelly said the regionalization concept may spook some. He called it a “control issue.” But for him, he sees regionalization as a key opportunity to build a dream system from the ground up, “a new high school, hire a new superintendent and a new front office staff. (Let’s) create the school system we want.”
Knocking down any political comparison, Frost was unflappable, “I’m a firm believer that if you present reasonable information to reasonable people and remain open to dialogue and answer questions posed with integrity and honesty, they will vote with their heads and their hearts and at the end of the day do what’s right.”