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By. M.E. Jones

Correspondent

AYER/SHIRLEY — Budgets topped the agenda at the Regional Leadership Advisory Group’s monthly meeting in February.

Specifically, talk centered on municipal and school budgets and the relative affordability of anticipated school district assessments to each member town.

Consisting of town and school officials and key municipal employees from Ayer and Shirley, RLAG’s founding mission was to bring ideas and concerns to a common table in light of the school district merger.

So far, the group’s pro-active agenda has been focused on school assessments, aiming to get close to final figures before annual town meetings this spring.

Typically, schools account for at least half of each town’s annual budget. But with a new district in place, the price tag could go up this year.

Created via respective town meeting votes, the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District was formed in March, 2010 and became operational on July 1, 2011.

The assessment formula is spelled out in the regional agreement.

Based on a certain factors and a split that varies with purpose — operating expenses versus building project costs, for example — the member town with the greater number of students pays the top percentage in most instances. Ayer’s cost substantially exceeds Shirley’s, for now, with an assessment percentage split of 72/28.

But over the next five years, Shirley must also pay an added installment to close a premerger, per-pupil spending gap that favored Ayer.

Last week, RLAG members, concerned about the tough financial straits both communities are in, asked if school assessments can be customized to fit circumstances.

The question is how much? The challenge is to pin down three sets of figures as soon as possible.

Shirley

Shirley CAO Dave Berry said 2013 “assumptions and projections” he presented at the last session still stand, with a projected $450,000 deficit.

Numbers can be “plugged in” once all departments’ capital and operating budgets are in. As of last Wednesday night, that input was on track, Berry said. “We’re looking at a Monday deadline.”

Berry noted relatively minor changes since his previous report: An increase in the Nashoba Tech assessment and an uptick in the town’s bill for employee insurance.

Also, union contracts had been signed for the next three years. .

“Any old bills the town can’t pay?” Ayer Selectman Gary Luca asked.

Berry said no.

Shirley Finance Committee member Mike Swanton said the “big” outstanding bill was the snow and ice budget, which went up $30,000 after the October snowstorm. However, that line item can be carried over, and since a state of emergency was declared, the town anticipates reimbursement from state and federal agencies MEMA and FEMA.

Ayer

Ayer’s fiscal situation — presented in “preliminary draft” version by Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand — didn’t look rosy, either, with a projected deficit of $216,137.

Two line items stood out. Overlay Surplus and Free Cash balances were both zero.

Local receipts were down from last year, but the two empty coffers can likely be chalked up to a backlog of unpaid taxes and water and sewer bills.

Pontbriand said the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen were “proactive” on collections, and health insurance cost issues are being addressed as well. “Progress is being made,” he said.

School district

School District Superintendent Carl Mock said that state aid in the district’s first year was lower than anticipated. “Government numbers were worse for us,” he said. “We had hoped for $70,000 more in Chapter 70 funds.”

Mock also said the district had prepared a first draft of its capital improvement plan, focused on technology and facility upgrades not in the current budget, and he presented itemized budget projections for five separate scenarios. Visionary budget totals labeled A to E ranged from $20,308,764 to $21,886,269.

He also noted that some middle school parents raised an issue at the last School Committee Meeting that could add to the bottom line. They asked for a late bus, he said.

Asked if union contracts were settled yet, Mock said that three out of four support staff contracts were in place and talks with teachers were wrapping up. “We’re close,” he said.

Swanton said wrapup should come soon if the group wants to discuss final figures before the school budget certification deadline. State law requires the budget to be set 45 days prior to the first town meeting in May. And the School Committee must hold a public budget hearing, the tentative date for which is Feb. 29.

That leaves a window of only a couple of weeks, Swanton pointed out. “Otherwise, it’s a fait accompli when it gets to town meeting floor,” he said.

Citing the time crunch, Swanton said “consensus” was key. “It’s in our best interests to have our budgets set,”he said. But all three entities were not on the same page. Shirley and Ayer had called for level-funded budgets.

But the School Committee, faced with first-year challenges such as creating a sustainable budget and building programs, had to raise its sights higher, member Bob Prescott explained. “We’ve inched up above 2 percent,” he said, citing the percentage increase Ayer and Shirley town officials previously agreed would be doable.

The certified fiscal 2012 school budget was $20,369,170. The budget the district is aiming for this year is somewhere between scenarios B and C, Prescott said.

Scenario B was just over $21 million, while Scenario C was well over $20.6 million.

Scenario E, at nearly $22 million, would be close to a conservative ideal, while Scenario D, just over $20 million, would be far below. “It would be a disaster,” Prescott said. In his view, the low-budget scenario would devastate programs that must be maintained if the new district is to establish itself as an attractive option for School Choice.

Swanton suggested targeting a mid-point budget scenario. “Something between B and C would be more reasonable to people,” he said.

Taxpayers will vote on the school budget at annual town meetings in each town. The assessments will be based on the percentage split in the agreement, which is 72/28. Ayer pays 72 percent of the total assessment, while Shirley pays 28 percent, with its first make-up installment due next year.

Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabree raised a couple of subjective points on which the outcomes might hinge. “The question is does the school deserve that much of the town budget?” she asked. “How do we work it out?”

Berry suggested a re-do of last year, when the two town’s finance groups got together to hash out issues and come up with recommendations.

Mock, for his part, agreed it was key to get “a sense” of where the district stands, going in, but with six weeks to deadline, there’s only so far negotiations can lower the budget. “At what point do we get to degraded services?” he asked.

Prescott agreed. “My concern is that cuts could cause damage that can’t be undone,” he said.

One of the strongest arguments to regionalize was stopping Choice outflow.

“Only regionalization stopped the mass exodus,” Prescott opined, and “it will pick up” if the district falters.

Clearly, Scenario E was the best option on the table from a school district slant.

School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly said it was a needs-based budget. “Scenario E is the projected cost of everything we do today,” he said.

Swanton said the challenge now was to square district goals with the communities’ current ability to pay for schools, town government and municipal services.

“I don’t think we’ll come up with a comfortable number today,” Ayer Selectman Gary Luca said. “But I can foresee a workable scenario, somewhere between B and C.”

Swanton said the assessment must also be viewed in the light of the building project.

“Our concern is that we find a way to share the pain,” Kelly said. And it must be done by the end of February, when the committee holds its budget hearing.

Mock asked, “What’s the role of this body?” Without any authority, “isn’t it more helpful to move from here to FinCom recommendations?”

The group agreed to stick with their current schedule while finance groups step up their meetings and to “keep the pressure on” as the process continues.

They also agreed — tentatively — to ask state officials to meet with them to discuss a amore global view of the budget crunch both towns and their new school district are facing.

Ayer, Shirley focus on school v. town budgets
Ayer, Shirley focus on school v. town budgets
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

By. M.E. Jones

Correspondent

AYER/SHIRLEY — Budgets topped the agenda at the Regional Leadership Advisory Group’s monthly meeting in February.

Specifically, talk centered on municipal and school budgets and the relative affordability of anticipated school district assessments to each member town.

Consisting of town and school officials and key municipal employees from Ayer and Shirley, RLAG’s founding mission was to bring ideas and concerns to a common table in light of the school district merger.

So far, the group’s pro-active agenda has been focused on school assessments, aiming to get close to final figures before annual town meetings this spring.

Typically, schools account for at least half of each town’s annual budget. But with a new district in place, the price tag could go up this year.

Created via respective town meeting votes, the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District was formed in March, 2010 and became operational on July 1, 2011.

The assessment formula is spelled out in the regional agreement.

Based on a certain factors and a split that varies with purpose — operating expenses versus building project costs, for example — the member town with the greater number of students pays the top percentage in most instances. Ayer’s cost substantially exceeds Shirley’s, for now, with an assessment percentage split of 72/28.

But over the next five years, Shirley must also pay an added installment to close a premerger, per-pupil spending gap that favored Ayer.

Last week, RLAG members, concerned about the tough financial straits both communities are in, asked if school assessments can be customized to fit circumstances.

The question is how much? The challenge is to pin down three sets of figures as soon as possible.

Shirley

Shirley CAO Dave Berry said 2013 “assumptions and projections” he presented at the last session still stand, with a projected $450,000 deficit.

Numbers can be “plugged in” once all departments’ capital and operating budgets are in. As of last Wednesday night, that input was on track, Berry said. “We’re looking at a Monday deadline.”

Berry noted relatively minor changes since his previous report: An increase in the Nashoba Tech assessment and an uptick in the town’s bill for employee insurance.

Also, union contracts had been signed for the next three years. .

“Any old bills the town can’t pay?” Ayer Selectman Gary Luca asked.

Berry said no.

Shirley Finance Committee member Mike Swanton said the “big” outstanding bill was the snow and ice budget, which went up $30,000 after the October snowstorm. However, that line item can be carried over, and since a state of emergency was declared, the town anticipates reimbursement from state and federal agencies MEMA and FEMA.

Ayer

Ayer’s fiscal situation — presented in “preliminary draft” version by Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand — didn’t look rosy, either, with a projected deficit of $216,137.

Two line items stood out. Overlay Surplus and Free Cash balances were both zero.

Local receipts were down from last year, but the two empty coffers can likely be chalked up to a backlog of unpaid taxes and water and sewer bills.

Pontbriand said the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen were “proactive” on collections, and health insurance cost issues are being addressed as well. “Progress is being made,” he said.

School district

School District Superintendent Carl Mock said that state aid in the district’s first year was lower than anticipated. “Government numbers were worse for us,” he said. “We had hoped for $70,000 more in Chapter 70 funds.”

Mock also said the district had prepared a first draft of its capital improvement plan, focused on technology and facility upgrades not in the current budget, and he presented itemized budget projections for five separate scenarios. Visionary budget totals labeled A to E ranged from $20,308,764 to $21,886,269.

He also noted that some middle school parents raised an issue at the last School Committee Meeting that could add to the bottom line. They asked for a late bus, he said.

Asked if union contracts were settled yet, Mock said that three out of four support staff contracts were in place and talks with teachers were wrapping up. “We’re close,” he said.

Swanton said wrapup should come soon if the group wants to discuss final figures before the school budget certification deadline. State law requires the budget to be set 45 days prior to the first town meeting in May. And the School Committee must hold a public budget hearing, the tentative date for which is Feb. 29.

That leaves a window of only a couple of weeks, Swanton pointed out. “Otherwise, it’s a fait accompli when it gets to town meeting floor,” he said.

Citing the time crunch, Swanton said “consensus” was key. “It’s in our best interests to have our budgets set,”he said. But all three entities were not on the same page. Shirley and Ayer had called for level-funded budgets.

But the School Committee, faced with first-year challenges such as creating a sustainable budget and building programs, had to raise its sights higher, member Bob Prescott explained. “We’ve inched up above 2 percent,” he said, citing the percentage increase Ayer and Shirley town officials previously agreed would be doable.

The certified fiscal 2012 school budget was $20,369,170. The budget the district is aiming for this year is somewhere between scenarios B and C, Prescott said.

Scenario B was just over $21 million, while Scenario C was well over $20.6 million.

Scenario E, at nearly $22 million, would be close to a conservative ideal, while Scenario D, just over $20 million, would be far below. “It would be a disaster,” Prescott said. In his view, the low-budget scenario would devastate programs that must be maintained if the new district is to establish itself as an attractive option for School Choice.

Swanton suggested targeting a mid-point budget scenario. “Something between B and C would be more reasonable to people,” he said.

Taxpayers will vote on the school budget at annual town meetings in each town. The assessments will be based on the percentage split in the agreement, which is 72/28. Ayer pays 72 percent of the total assessment, while Shirley pays 28 percent, with its first make-up installment due next year.

Ayer Town Accountant Lisa Gabree raised a couple of subjective points on which the outcomes might hinge. “The question is does the school deserve that much of the town budget?” she asked. “How do we work it out?”

Berry suggested a re-do of last year, when the two town’s finance groups got together to hash out issues and come up with recommendations.

Mock, for his part, agreed it was key to get “a sense” of where the district stands, going in, but with six weeks to deadline, there’s only so far negotiations can lower the budget. “At what point do we get to degraded services?” he asked.

Prescott agreed. “My concern is that cuts could cause damage that can’t be undone,” he said.

One of the strongest arguments to regionalize was stopping Choice outflow.

“Only regionalization stopped the mass exodus,” Prescott opined, and “it will pick up” if the district falters.

Clearly, Scenario E was the best option on the table from a school district slant.

School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly said it was a needs-based budget. “Scenario E is the projected cost of everything we do today,” he said.

Swanton said the challenge now was to square district goals with the communities’ current ability to pay for schools, town government and municipal services.

“I don’t think we’ll come up with a comfortable number today,” Ayer Selectman Gary Luca said. “But I can foresee a workable scenario, somewhere between B and C.”

Swanton said the assessment must also be viewed in the light of the building project.

“Our concern is that we find a way to share the pain,” Kelly said. And it must be done by the end of February, when the committee holds its budget hearing.

Mock asked, “What’s the role of this body?” Without any authority, “isn’t it more helpful to move from here to FinCom recommendations?”

The group agreed to stick with their current schedule while finance groups step up their meetings and to “keep the pressure on” as the process continues.

They also agreed — tentatively — to ask state officials to meet with them to discuss a amore global view of the budget crunch both towns and their new school district are facing.