SHIRLEY — It was an historic vote and obvious from the outset which way it would go.
The single article on the March 6 Special Town Meeting warrant proposed forming an Ayer-Shirley Regional School District. The motion passed by more than three-to-one.
Crowd responses and the few people who stood to speak told the story early on. For or against, people didn’t want discussion. They came to vote and most had already made up their minds.
Of 671 ballots cast, 508 voters said yes, 161 said no and two ballots were left blank; 706 registered voters were checked in.
Town Moderator George Knittel delayed the 10 a.m. start time for late arrivals. Anticipating a record turnout, an auxiliary setup in the gym provided an audio-video link to the auditorium. The Regionalization Planning Board contributed $6,000 to buy the equipment, Knittel said.
From start to close at 1:30 p.m., presentations took up most of the meeting time. The vote came at about 12:30 p.m, with another hour to count ballots.
Regionalization Planning Board Chairman Mike Swanton gave a 45-minute presentation that Knittel had said would be limited to half that time.
Finance Committee Chairman Frank Kolarik also went over budgeted time as he explained why the committee voted 4-1 to recommend regionalization: because they believe it is affordable and will stem the flow of choice-out to other districts, which costs the town $1million a year.
School Committee Chairman David Baumritter said his 3-year-old son asked, “Is that my school?” when they pass school buildings in town sparked a vision of what the district would look like 10 years from now.
“I believe regionalization will solve our problems,” he said. “There’s no doubt the quality of education will be greatly enhanced.”
The Board of Selectmen did not agree. Though outnumbered, they had their say.
Selectman Kendra Dumont said the board had not received enough data to decide if regionalization would help or hurt the town.
“The Regional School Committee will have to work out the numbers,” she said. But she wouldn’t sign a mortgage without terms spelled out, she said, or move in without knowing the cost.
“Do I want to take a leap of faith? I can’t say, but we may not be able to afford it,” she said.
“There are two sides to this story,” Selectman Enrico Cappucci said, and the selectmen must speak out, he added.
They asked for a five-year projected school budget to compare with town revenue for the same period, he said, but numbers kept changing, showing shortfalls from $4 million to $2.6 million.
“How can a responsible decision be made?” he asked. Added costs include equalizing Shirley teacher salaries with Ayer’s, retrofitting the middle school and the $175,000 gap between transition funding promised by the governor and the full price.
“We’ve eaten up our Stabilization Fund,” he warned. Bristling at derisive laughter, he said, “The town is in deep debt, and it’s shameful for you to make fun of it!”
Resident Robert Eramo said Cappucci shouldn’t try to tell townspeople what’s best for them.
“Now I know what transparency is,” he said. “I see right through you.”
Chairman Andy Deveau made his case succinctly. “It’s not my job to tell you how to vote,” he said. “But I have concerns” such as cost, loss of local control and whether promised efficiencies are real.
“We’ve had various (school) budget scenarios, but what we see is a $4 million increase,” he said. “Where is the money going to come from?”
And if regionalization produces savings, it will go into the school district, Deveau concluded. “None of it will come back to the town.”
Ayer’s STM took about 30 minutes, with a lower turnout. But both towns overwhelming approved creating an Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, the first formed in the state for three decades.