AYER — The fledgling Ayer-Shirley Regional School District is set to launch July 1. Officials have whittled down a projected $3 million deficit ten-fold to $322,000. In return for absorbing $72,000 of the deficit, the school district’s interim superintendents told a joint meeting of the Ayer and Shirley Finance Committees Thursday night that they’ll ask the member towns to share their wealth and pony up the $250,000 difference.
The school district will ask Ayer to pay two-thirds of that $250,000 difference, which is $167,000. That sum would be atop the $8.3 million preliminary Ayer assessment figure on which Ayer officials based their draft Fiscal Year 2012 budget. Shirley would bear roughly one third of the $250,000 deficit difference, or $83,000. Co-Interim Superintendent Mac Reid said that between the two towns, Ayer and Shirley both realized a combined $1 million in growth between increased property tax collections and the annual Proposition two-and-a-half tax increase. Reid estimated Ayer’s new growth at $750,000 and Shirley’s at $250,000. “The pie is not big enough and everyone wants a piece of the pie,” said Reid. “Let’s figure out what is a fair way to divide up a pie that’s too small. We have a plan that we think is a fair plan. Have an open mind.”
The request stunned Ayer Finance Committee Chairman Brian Muldoon. “I can’t even fathom where we’d get more money.” Muldoon explained that Ayer department heads all submitted budgets reflecting 3- and 5-percent budget cuts. The fire and police departments have dealt with the budget directive by suggesting layoffs. Many departments supply budgets as small as $250 due to multiple years of budget cuts. “I think I go through more than that in my house,” said Muldoon. And negotiations are afoot with warnings of no cost of living or pay increases.
“We’ve been partners in those cuts,” answered Ayer interim School Superintendent George Frost. And if other basic budget assumptions don’t pan out, Frost assured that the district will work to soak up the difference. But Frost also said “We’re absorbing $440,000 of cost avoidance for the two towns” between inflation and other costs.
The $22 million budget is based on several assumptions, including the receipt of a $50 per pupil state incentive to regionalize, the outcome of negotiations with a teachers union, the firmness of the governor’s preliminary budget figures, and that the towns will come up with the added quarter million dollars.
Reid added, “We’re starting a new business with no money….so we’re taking a lot of risks or at least the region is.” Atop the identified deficit, school officials have determined that additional $200,000 is needed to pay for $150,000 in increased student psychological services and $50,000 for office support and team leadership demands. To cover those costs, Reid said the district will continue to review the budget to “keep combing it, keep scrubbing it.”
A regional school committee budget hearing, originally contemplated for March 1, may be eased back to March 16 in advance of the town’s individual annual town meetings.
Frost offered a meeting with town officials. Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand snapped up the offer, setting a meeting with himself and his Shirley counterpart David Berry, along with the town accountants. The municipal officials will meet with the school superintendents and school district’s business managers for a budget summit on Feb. 28.
Ayer selectman Gary Luca pressed Frost for information on how “two viable school districts this year, without deficits” could end up having a $3 million deficit in the first place. “I’d like to see a spreadsheet on it somewhere.”
Frost said that was then, but the difference in the $22.1 million budget has been reduced to a $72,000 deficit. “That’s where we’re at now.”
Regional School Committee member James Quinty said he was “shocked” himself to see where the budget figures were going. He fears the unknowns.
“We’re going at this cold.” Quinty added the budget deficit is real and needs to be negotiated between the towns. The two towns need to have some faith to move the region forward. “If the worst thing we have to deal with is a $250,000 problem, I’m OK.”