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Part one of a two-part story

By Dina M. Samfield


SHIRLEY — Board member Michael Swanton shared a PowerPoint presentation on the Lunenburg-Ayer-Shirley Regionalization Planning Board’s (RPB) progress, and gave an overview of what the new three-town district would look like during a meeting held June 24.

The event took place with an audience of about 40 people in the Shirley Middle School auditorium.

Swanton said the Lunenburg-Ayer-Shirley Regionalization Planning Board (RPB) was formed in 2007. Since then it has received $70,000 in Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) grant funds as well as $78,000 approved via town meetings for legal costs for negotiating the three-town Regional School District Agreement.

In 2008, the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) completed a feasibility study. The study emphasized the similarities and overlap between the three school districts. All three school systems share similar mission and vision statements, services such as business and food management, professional development, and the two high schools. The NESDEC study concluded, “The communities are more alike than they are different.”

Swanton discussed the current reality for the three districts, the advantages of regionalizing, and what would happen if Shirley does not regionalize. He pointed out that enrollment numbers in all three towns have been declining and will likely continue to decline for the next few years; the number of school choice students opting out of the districts is increasing; and, schools in each district are in need of renovations and would have reduced reimbursement and a lesser priority from any state funding if they applied individually.

The town of Shirley, for example, would likely pay $9.2 million to renovate Lura A. White School. With funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), the cost to the town of building a regional high school would be $6.5 million, or 40 percent less. The regional building project would also be “bumped up” on the state’s priority funding list. An independent district building project would be unlikely to receive any state funding for many years.

Swanton said that, given the continuing loss of students, the increased costs of education, flat and declining state and federal support for education, and looming expensive renovation projects in all three towns, the current education models of the three towns are not sustainable in the long-term.

As for the benefits, due to economies of scale, the new regional school district would save money on costs such as duplicative administration (for example, one each as opposed to three superintendents, three business managers, three special education directors) that could be put back into the classroom, bringing back academic programs such as foreign language for Shirley students, and adding advanced placement high school courses.

In addressing the concerns of those who have read that large high schools are not as beneficial to students as smaller ones, Swanton pointed out that currently, Ayer and Lunenburg each has a small high school. In combining the two, the three-town region would have one medium-sized high school–not a large one.

The size of the new district would be about 3,500 students. Pre-K through grade 5 students would be educated in their home communities. In Shirley, Lura A. White would no longer be used as a school in the district. Instead, the Shirley Middle School would be retrofitted for the younger students. (FLLAC, a collaborative that serves students with developmental disabilities and other mental, emotional and behavioral issues, has expressed some interest in possibly renting part of that building.)

The two middle schools would remain one each in Ayer and Lunenburg, with Shirley students attending Ayer Middle School as part of the regional district. The region would continue to operate two high schools until such time as a new high school is built. The total high school enrollment for the new district is estimated to be just fewer than 1,000.

Representatives of the three towns would make up the regional school committee, with membership based upon the towns’ populations. Currently, that would mean four members from Lunenburg, and three each from Ayer and Shirley. The school committee would operate as “one person, one vote,” with no one town being able to drive the direction of the district.

There is strong state support for regionalization by the governor, senate and house leadership, Shirley’s local state representative and senator, and the education secretary and commissioner, who see the LAS region as a model for the rest of the state. According to Swanton and Milree Keeling, chair of the Regional Planning Board, there has not been a new region of this kind formed in the state in over 30 years.

The process of getting assurances from the state for the $1.8 million sought by the RPB for the two-year transition process is ongoing. Swanton encouraged everyone present to contact Rep. Jen Benson, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, and Gov. Deval Patrick to let them know that the state needs to “put its money where its mouth is.”

The figures used for the “snapshot” budget scenario for the combined district by the RPB are those for the current fiscal year. Swanton emphasized that these are the current “real” numbers, which is why fiscal 2009 numbers were used. The figures will change and be reevaluated for both 2010 and 2011 based on the budgets passed in each of the three towns at their annual town meetings.

The bottom line cost/opportunity adjustments based on the 2009 figures show a total cost savings of nearly $600,000 that could be put back into programs for the students.

To be continued.