SHIRLEY — School Committee Chairman Susan Therriault, Superintendent Malcolm Reid and Business Manager Evan Katz made a case to the selectmen Monday night. Basically a rerun several times over, the issue was not resolved.
In a nutshell, a previous board unanimously voted last March to cede back to the schools $97,000 in Choice-out money for 20 students to attend Ayer Middle School. But due to a last-minute change of venue, the two middle schools merged in Shirley instead and those students stayed put, effectively canceling their tuition to the other school district.
Under the state School Choice program, tuition to receiving districts is plucked from the sending district’s municipal cherry sheet, so the town pays the bill.
At the time, Reid argued the school district should have the money, since it would educate those students. The selectmen agreed but later changed their minds, stating the vote hinged on a stipulation that the arrangement wouldn’t cost the town any more money.
But new add-ons to the insurance rolls upped the town’s costs. The other side of the argument was that no such caveat was part of the agreement and the school should still have that money.
Other disputes followed about who owed what to whom on a number of different items, including telephone and technology bills.
Recently, Selectmen Chairman Kendra Dumont and the town’s financial team, headed by Chief Administrative Officer Dave Berry, have been meeting with Therriault, Reid and Katz to resolve those issues.
Monday night, Therriault said she believed the two sides were on the same page until a memo from Berry dashed her hopes. “The big issue was School Choice,” she said. The original $97,000 was built into the budget voters approved at last year’s Annual Town Meeting, she said, but after a lot of back and forth, the amount was whittled down to $34,000. The figure Berry recommended was just $3,000.
“That would put us in quite a bind,” she said. Therriault said she was “disappointed and disheartened” after receiving Berry’s memo and “fed up” with setbacks and “stalling tactics” on the town’s part.
“Susan, you need to watch your tone,” Dumont cautioned.
In a salvo aimed at Selectman Andy Deveau, Therriault continued: “That you would go against your word then run for election is appalling. What’s going on?”
Deveau said he disagreed on the Choice money. The town’s insurance costs went up due to “new hires” at the school, he said.
“Those were replacements, we’re not on a hiring binge,” Therriault said.
Katz later confirmed that some names on a list compiled by the town treasurer were new hires, but not all. Some were spouses of employees, newly added to the insurance rolls. Others were teachers hired when new programs were added at the merged middle school. With Ayer students, the population has nearly doubled, he said.
But Reid said they were not talking about the same thing anyway. The conversation was about Choice, and there was “no contingency in your vote” on that issue, he said.
As for insurance, he said Deveau was “way off base” and that was a separate discussion and not connected to the vote in question.
All things considered, Therriault said it was “more rational to agree on the lower number.”
Selectman David Swain agreed. “I see no votes making it (the vote) specific to health insurance,” he said. He subsequently made a motion to approve the school’s request for $34,000. It was not seconded, however, and no vote was taken.