Ayer schools ask for $11.2M, but a merger with Shirley would change things


AYER — “If you’d like them autographed, we’ll sign them for you at the end of the meeting in case they have any monetary value,” joked Interim Ayer School Superintendent George Frost to the Ayer Finance Committee. Yet at the Feb. 17 Finance Committee meeting, Frost handed out documents of possible historical import — outlines of his proposed fiscal 2011 School Department budget which may, indeed, become artifacts of Ayer’s stand-alone public school system.

Frost and School Business Manager Bill Plunkett will formally present their proposed school budget at the March 10 School Committee meeting. By then, the voters of Ayer and Shirley will have voted on whether or not to create a two-town regional school district. A special vote with be held in both towns on March 6.

But, for the coming year’s budget, regionalization isn’t factored in. The effects regionalization vote would kick in for fiscal 2012.

Frost said his leadership team reviewed its present budget for “what’s working, what’s not working, how good were we in terms of budgeting or not budgeting this year.”

His team then formulated a $12 million dream budget, based on elements they agreed the district needs which would have represented a 8.7 percent increase over current budget. Frost admitted that such an increase would be beyond what the town is able to pay but as a structural budget, this sum would cover “what we’d like to be doing.”

The team then prioritized the upgrades and balanced other fiscal realities to present a toned-down $11.2 million budget, representing a $230,000, or 2.1 percent, increase over the department’s present $10.99 million budget. The $11 million budget is comprised of $9.2 million in town-side funding and some 20 percent or $2 million from other school-side revenue sources like $900,000 in School Choice funds and $700,000 in Shirley.

On the school side of the budget, Frost proposed restoring $120,000 worth of expenses cut from last year’s budget, such a librarian and textbooks. Some $130,000 is being put in to finance an English teacher and provide a technology boost to the schools. They’re bracing conservatively, too, for $150,000 in state special-education funding, which has continuously dropped over the past several years.

Salaries, districtwide and per contract, are to climb $350,000 next year between cost of living and step increases. Frost said as much as $250,000 to $275,000 can be shaved from that number by hiring, younger and cheaper replacements.

“Those are the things that drove us to the $800,000 shortfall,” Frost said of the school side of the budget equation.

On the town side, where health-insurance costs are pooled and managed, the town is experiencing a 12 percent increase in premiums this year, with the school’s share up by $500,000. On health-insurance costs, the schools pay 75 percent of the benefit, while the teachers shoulder the 25 percent difference. When asked by FinCom member Jesse Reich if it was time to revisit that split to save the district money, Frost said that there’s no short- term fix as the split is set by contract, the state mandates at least a 50/50 split, and pushing more can have a chilling effect on staffing and hiring.

That, along with other financial facts and a presumed 5 percent reduction in state aid this year, forced a townwide directive to department heads to present level funded budgets, save for contractual pay increases. The hope is then that it would be a pleasant surprise if state funding is actually higher following legislative conferences.

Shirley tuition revenue for the coming year is estimated to pull in $738,917. Frost called the sum a “reasonable tuition.” But if regionalization doesn’t pass and Ayer must singularly finance significant capital improvements to the high school, School Committee Chairman Dan Gleason said tuition would have to go “in a whole different direction and have a whole different discussion.”

A glimmer of hope is that local aid is level funded to the town, which Frost said would mean $180,000 for the school side of the budget, “whether it happens or not is debatable.” But banking on the gloomier side is the town’s course, “I haven’t budgeted all the money I expect we’ll receive. I would rather be on the low side than the high side. When I came in 2007-2008, it was budgeted for $1 million but we got only a quarter of that so we started with structural deficit,” he said.

Federal stimulus funds are in their second year. The sums not known though some $201,000 was funneled to the schools for the present year to “supplement, not supplant” basic recurring school needs.

FinCom Chairman Brian Muldoon said “When the (stimulus) funds go away, we’re going to have to find a way to pay for this stuff,” to which Frost answered, “I like your use of the word ‘we’ on that, Brian.”

Other revenue sources include some $600,000 in grants, which are hoped to come in at-or-close-to level funded sums. On a private grant, Plunkett said an employee’s spouse provided information that lead to a $50,000 Bristol-Meyers Squibb grant. Frost said that generally schools of Ayer’s size are “usually not big enough to peak the interest” of major foundations. Still, Reich, a former Lawrence and Natick chemistry teacher, suggested that staffers help hunt down, and perhaps write applications for, such grants, in addition to sending notices home with children to reach parent employers for similarly available grant opportunities.

After asking for more information about the regionalization effort, the FinCom voted 5-0 to support the concept, following on the heels of the selectmen’s and school committee’s unanimous votes over the course of the prior week.