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By M.E. Jones, Correspondent

AYER/SHIRLEY – It was fitting that the Ayer-Shirley Regional Advisory Group held its first meeting at the Ayer-Shirley Middle School, where the two towns launched their educational partnership last August, a year before the Regional School District.

With the new district slated to become operational on July 1, 2011 and the merger imbedded in the plan, the pro-active move expanded curriculum, added programs and mingled Ayer and Shirley middle school students and staff a year ahead of time. It coincided with the “transition year” in which the two long-standing school districts were gearing up to become one.

Now, the ASR advisory group is a first step toward establishing communication and cooperation between the new school district and municipal leaders in the member towns.

The concept draws on the leadership team paradigm both former school districts

were familiar with and extends the successful Ayer Tri-Board model.

There was no tri-board in Shirley, where relationship between municipal government and the schools was rocky and communication lines too often broke down.

With a two-town school district, it’s a three-way set-up now. The new group offers a platform for discussion and a conduit to keep those lines open among the three entities.

When Superintendent Carl Mock proposed forming a dual tri-board earlier this year, he envisioned an “informal” group with an open-ended agenda.

But it was posted as a public meeting when the group met for the first time last Thursday night. Pre-set parameters stated that the group would not take any action or vote. Participants will report back to their respective boards.

At the table were Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, Shirley Chief Administrative Officer Dave Berry, the two town accountants, a Regional School Committee representative from each town, the school business manager and representatives from the two towns’ top boards, Selectmen and Finance Committee.

The group’s stated mission was to discuss topics of common interest and share ideas.

Presumably, a long-range vision. For now, the topic is budget.

Three budgets, actually, one for each entity: The towns of Ayer and Shirley, respectively, and the Regional School District, the assessment for which will be at least half of each town’s operating budget.

When the session wrapped after about an hour without a single number on the table, participants agreed it was key to share facts and figures as early as possible in the budget process.

Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabris said it’s virtually impossible to set the town budget without knowing how much the school district assessment will be.

Ayer Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon said it would be “catastrophic” if the bill the school district hands the town this year is more than 2 ? percent over last year.

Gabris said she didn’t fear a significant uptick based on projected numbers from the former superintendent. But costs will go up on the town-side. “We balanced our budget last year without cost of living increases or raises” for town employees, she said. “We can’t do that again this year.”

In Shirley, town employees got small increases this year after two years without raises, Selectmen Chairman David Swain said.

Bt the financial picture that was grim last year is still sketchy this year. .

The good news was that voters approved a debt exclusion tax override earlier this year that rolled in a bundle of old debt and freed up significant cash in the operating budget. The bad news was that a recent attempt based on the same basic premise failed.

At an election last month, Shirley voters rejected four Proposition 2 ? override requests to purchase needed items via debt and capital exclusions versus the operating budget. Bids for two debt exclusions and two capital exclusions totaled over $300,000. Listed separately, the items were a police cruiser, a new dump truck, IT equipment and police radios that must be installed by 2013 to meet a federal mandate.

The capital exclusions would have temporarily raised property tax rates for one year. Each debt exclusion would have upped tax bills for the debt term, with the rate decreasing each year.

Selectmen cited possible factors at a meeting after the failed vote. Maybe they didn’t get the word out soon enough or should have bundled the requests differently. Maybe they did not adequately explain how important items on the list were to the town or voters didn’t understand debt and capital exclusions versus general overrides.

Finance Committee Chairman Frank Kolarik complained that a newspaper article incorrectly reported the tax hike total.

Whatever the reason, it’s likely they will ask again. In the meantime, there’s a budget to build before Annual Town Meeting, which will be earlier this year, closer to Ayer’s.

On the school side of the table, RSC member Bob Prescott – one of three Shirley members on the six-member board – explained that the school budget process is different than that of municipal government, although both face tough challenges.

Prescott, who also served on the former Shirley School Committee, compared the district’s belt-tightening approach with the town’s. He told Swain that while the town chose to keep a full roster of employees and freeze salaries, Shirley teachers’ raises were offset by layoffs and consolidations. “We just did it differently,” he said.

This year, for example, the RSC voted its first year budget and the state certified it before Shirley’s Annual Town Meeting, making it al but impossible to change the assessment.

The number was more than the town had built into its budget, causing a dust-up with town officials. Interim town manager Ron Marchetti argued vigorously that due to unresolved business with the former school district, town-side credits should have been figured in but were not. The RSC, however, declined to revisit the issue.

Mock said he didn’t anticipate an increase in the school budget this year that would significantly impact member towns, which share the total cost via a percentage split.

On the town side, everybody wanted an assessment estimate as soon as possible.

But School Business Manager Evan Katz said it was too soon to pin down numbers or even venture an educated guess.

The district has no “history” to base a projected budget on, he said, and it was doubtful he would have “firm” figures by the group’s next monthly meeting.

Gabris responded that even “soft” figures would do, the sooner the better.

Acknowledging variables in both school and municipal budgets, Katz said the schools’ trickiest moving targets are state education aid and special education transportation costs, which won’t be available until at least December.

Positing that even incomplete data is better than none, Shirley Finance Committee Chairman Frank Kolarik urged forming a working sub-group to tackle those figures as soon as possible.

Aiming for a monthly schedule, the advisory group’s next meeting was set for Wednesday, Nov. 2 at the same time and place: 7 p.m. at Ayer-Shirley Middle School.