AYER — School Committee member Cheryl Simmons has served as one of three members of Ayer’s Regionalization Planning Committee and the Lunenburg, Ayer and Shirley Regional Planning Board.
Throughout two years of work, she and Ayer Superintendent George Frost regularly updated the School Committee on the talks and steps to further the effort.
But at the Sept. 2 meeting, Simmons and Frost could only state the obvious: that the draft regionalization agreement they prepared to present to Town Meeting voters would not be presented after all.
The Regionalization Planning Committee voted unanimously at its Sept. 1 meeting not to pursue the three-town system it had envisioned.
In a way, it was no surprise. As the deadline approached, proponents were clear about the sticking point — state transition money. Although not promised, there was hope it could be found, somewhere. It was not.
“We never heard back from the governor’s office,” after a meeting at the Statehouse last month, Simmons said. “The board felt it was an insurmountable road block.”
“It was disappointing, after two years and to have progressed so far…” Frost said.
“We still think the three-town region is the best option,” Simmons said, but absent that, there may be opportunities for collaboration between Ayer and Shirley school districts, which already have close ties.
The board was to meet Sept. 15 “to finalize our reports to the boards of selectmen,” Simmons said.
Chairman Dan Gleason said that if talks start up between Ayer and Shirley, School Committee members should be there.
The board discussed hopeful points, such as the possibility that the state building authority (SBA) might put Ayer High School “on a fast track” for renovations if it were to become a high school for two towns. “A 550-student school is still better than a single school with just 300 students,” Frost said.
Transition costs would be lower for two towns, he said, and certainly less than $1.8 million. Staff costs estimated to go up by $500,000 for three towns would go up about $100,000 for two, Frost said.
Some transitional hurdles also would be easier. “A good number of Shirley kids already attend Ayer High, and we’d probably look at a blended middle school,” he said.
Frost asked the board’s leave to prepare a report that he and Shirley Superintendent Malcolm Reid have already talked about, to frame a new vision in terms of leadership, which for the last two years has focused on regionalization as a way to consolidate services, achieve economies of scale and expand programs and services.
“Mac and I are both short-timers (interim superintendents), but if there’s no regionalization, you need to start looking for a new superintendent,” he said.
But Frost won’t jump ship early if there’s a chance to salvage the idea on a smaller scale.
“It may be presumptuous, but I signed on for this…whether the bus stops or rolls on for another year, we need a lot of answers quickly,” he said. “My sense is that Shirley is interested in having a conversation. You’ve been patient (School Committee), but now you need to be more active.”
Frost said he would deliver his report at the Oct. 7 meeting.