AYER — The Finance Committee presented its draft $20.6 million fiscal 2013 budget April 10 during its meeting with the Board of Selectmen. The committee’s proposed budget currently reflects a $334,000 deficit.
However, signals were sent earlier in the day by the Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee and received in Ayer, indicating that the RSC was willing to return to the table and downwardly revise its assessment certification figures between the two towns to the tune of $214,000.
The $214,000 cut came atop the $263,000 worth of cuts included in the budget certified by the RSC on March 21. All said, the school proposed a budget cut down by $478,000.
The Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee will meet Wednesday this week to take a recertification vote.
The timing is critical as each town prepares to close its warrants and send the article language for mass printing and mail distribution before the May 14 Ayer and May 21 Shirley annual Town Meetings.
On March 21, the RSC certified Ayer’s assessment reflective of a 6.6 percent (or $544,120) increase over Ayer’s current $8.2 million assessment, bringing Ayer’s total assessment to $8.7 million.
On April 10, however, the RSC indicated it would reconsider that increase and reconvene to recertify by month’s end a revised Ayer assessment reflecting a 4.8 percent (or $390,357) increase over the current Ayer assessment.
Likewise, the RSC certified Shirley’s assessment which included a 6.4 percent (or $300,786) increase over the current $4.7 million Shirley assessment, for a total assessment of $5,010,077.
Now, with the promised downward revision, Shirley’s assessment would grow instead by 5.1 percent (or $240,709) in the coming year, for a total of $4,950,000.
The shift is not insignificant. In Ayer, the Regional School District assessment is 42 percent of the town’s annual operating budget in much the same manner that education costs were before the towns formally regionalized the schools last July 1.
Also present for the meeting was Regional School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly, the Shirley Board of Selectmen and Shirley Chief Administrative Officer David Berry.
When the school and town officials met last fall at Leadership Advisory Group meetings, Ayer sought a capped two percent increase in its assessment. Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said, with collective bargaining getting under way with Ayer’s unions, the “hope is not to repeat” another year of zero pay increases in Ayer.
Ever since, the Regional School Committee has struggled with its response, fleshing out budget scenarios that have varied from two to 11 percent and several percentage points in between.
Mock said the school committee is looking to continue the dialogue with the towns.
Mock said the downward revision comes as the Shirley Finance Committee has signaled that town can handle an assessment figure of $4,950,000. The message opened the door on eleventh-hour school budget re-certification talks.
With all funds in, including grants, state aid and regional incentives, the Regional School Committee proposed fiscal 2013 budget currently stands at $25,027,582. With the change, Mock said the all-in Regional School budget would drop to $24,813,742, or less than a tenth of one percent increase.
“We’d be basically level-funded for the third straight year,” said RSC Chairman Pat Kelly. “I think the delta is $21,000.”
With the downward revision, Mock envisioned layoffs for the district. Two jobs have already been lost due to attrition. Moving forward, Mock projected the loss of one to two teachers, three to five paraprofessionals, some or all of the lunch recess aides, shaving off one bus run, and other cuts.
“Our revenues are down, as are yours,” said Mock to the towns. “We understand that.” A large school hit is the termination of a one-time only $500,000 federal stimulus Education Jobs grant. It was applied towards teachers’ health insurance.
“Some have criticized us for using one-time monies (in that way),” said Mock. “That is what it was intended to be used for.
Mock said the district is still bracing for the possibility that $72,000 in regional incentive aid, not included in the governor’s draft budget, will not come through. Luca laughed at the idea that it would not come through. Mock sighed, “If we all kept our promises, the world would be a better place.”
Kelly said the state Chapter 70 school “foundation” budget reimbursement rate is stagnant and doesn’t take into account soaring health insurance costs. “The formula is not right.” Mock was encouraged that health insurance costs for the district only grew 5.5 percent this year, which he said is “still a considerable savings compared to last year” when school staff were covered prior to regionalization by higher-cost plans.
Town accountant Lisa Gabree encouraged the district re-examine its health insurance offerings, as the town recently came to terms with its unions on a plan that saves the town $214,527 in the coming fiscal year. “That might help you with your $400,000 problem,” offered Gabree.
Ayer Finance Committee member Michael Pattenden accentuated the health care discussion in this way — Ayer saved $214,527, but the school district’s health insurance costs jumped $647,083. “I think it deserves a great deal of time and attention,” Pattenden advised.
School officials responded that there have been considerable savings realized this year because the regional district’s plan is significantly less expensive than the town’s current plan.
“The work now before us for all three entities is how do we make this work?” said Pontbriand. Pontbriand put it squarely to Berry, “Where is Shirley?” Is it at the $4.9 million or is that very problematic for the town? What is the position as to what you can afford or are willing to pay?”
Berry said he had not heard “directly from the Shirley Finance Committee on its appetite for a 4.5 percent school assessment increase. But Shirley Selectman Andy Deveau characterized the increase as “unacceptable in our eyes and unachievable.”
Deveau explained that the town has to juggle two assessments — the Regional School Committee, and the cost of sending students to the Nashoba Valley Regional Technical High School. Shirley’s costs have climbed there by $113,000, in large part because of attrition from the Regional School District.
Also, Shirley “cannot cut any more services,” said Deveau. “We’re cut to bare bones.”
“We have three DPW employees responsible for all roads. They barely can do it,” said Deveau.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.