SHIRLEY — The selectmen signed the June 6 Annual Town Meeting warrant last Wednesday night after a joint session with the Finance Committee. The boards have been working together on the budget and to make recommendations on the 24 warrant articles.
The goal was to take a balanced budget to Town Meeting and try to align their recommendations for or against the articles, two of which they had tabled at a previous meeting.
Mostly on the same page up to that point, the two boards did not agree on articles 4 and 5, which are requested amendments to the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Agreement.
A majority of FinCom members voted to recommend favorably on the two articles. The majority of selectmen, however, decided to hold off until Town Meeting.
Selectman Andy Deveau said there would be presentations and questions he wants to consider before making up his mind. “I anticipate spirited discussion,” he said. “I’d prefer to hold off on rendering our opinion.”
“I don’t have a problem with waiting” for Town Meeting, Chairman Kendra Dumont said.
The board voted unanimously to wait on article 5.
On article 4, however, the vote was 2-1. Selectman David Swain voted no. “After hearing the explanation, I support it,” he said.
The explanation — arguably the simplest and most compelling to date — came at the FinCom meeting down the hall, where some of the pushback Deveau envisioned for Town Meeting may already have started.
Having convened about a half-hour before the other board, the committee heard an updated explanation of the proposed amendments and posed some tough questions.
Making a case for the requested changes to the Regional Agreement, which Ayer Town Meeting voters approved a couple of weeks ago, Shirley School Superintendent Malcolm Reid, school Finance Director Evan Katz and School Committee member Bob Prescott characterized both amendments as housekeeping chores.
They said the Regional Planning Board “intended” to write the agreement differently but the lawyer misinterpreted their aims when he drafted the document. Prescott, one of three Shirley representatives on the three-member Regional School Committee, served on the planning board, as did FinCom member Mike Swanton.
“It seems pretty clear we should support this,” Swanton said. He asserted, as did Prescott and Reid, that article 4 favors Shirley and article 5 favors Ayer, at least for now.
Choice-out numbers that are higher in Shirley than Ayer would raise Shirley’s percentage share from the earlier version. But those numbers should go down as the school system improves, offering more programs that would encourage students to stay, they said.
FinCom member Dan Meehan said he could accept that “mistakes” were made and the argument for the first amendment proposal, but he was not so sure about the other.
The first amendment, article 4, seeks to re-do the assessment formula, changing the Ayer-Shirley assessment percentage split, but with Ayer still paying the lion’s share. The second amendment, article 5, seeks to change the way building project debt is apportioned between the two member towns, but only for the high school.
“I keep hearing about intent,” Meehan said. That the Planning Board intended to apportion costs for building projects differently for the high school than for elementary schools and that because of Choice-out, the foundation enrollment-based formula is more fair, especially to Ayer at this point. The agreement uses the actual number of students enrolled and makes no exception for the high school, with a major renovation in the works that is currently estimated in the $36 million range.
Citing presentations before the regionalization vote, Meehan questioned why it didn’t come up before Town Meeting voters in Ayer and Shirley approved the agreement.
“I had always heard that for any capital projects, it (assessment to each member town) would be based on the numbers (of students) in each building,” he said. He questioned whether there’s a memo or minutes that support the contention that the Planning Board had discussed foundation enrollment versus actual enrollment as a base number.
“I’m sure it’s in there somewhere,” Prescott replied. “It was a major topic that we debated.”
Meehan persisted. “But this is how it ended up and it’s what the town voted on,” he said. “This is a big change.”
“It was definitely something we missed,” Prescott acknowledged.
Meehan was incredulous. “Bob, if it took so long and was such a big issue, how come you got it wrong?
“We didn’t” said Prescott. “The lawyer did.”