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AYER/SHIRLEY — At a special meeting of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee last week, Superintendent Carl Mock traced the history of a recent proposal to ask the town of Ayer to “share” Shirley’s remaining debt for the regional middle school, now that the building is a shared facility housing students from both member towns.

Built in 2003, the Shirley Middle School was occupied by Shirley students for seven years before joint occupancy commenced in fiscal 2011, according to a document Mock prepared to analyze a possible debt split.

With the middle school merger preceding the official start-up of the regional school district by a year, Ayer middle school students moved in for the 2010-2011 school year.

A few months earlier, Ayer and Shirley voters had approved the a regional agreement that created the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, with plans in process for a renovation and addition project to update the 50-year-old middle and high school facility in Ayer.

Intrinsically linked to an overall improvement plan for the new region, the middle school merger provided an enhanced sixth- through eighth-grade curriculum and added academic programs the two independent districts could not offer on their own.

But with Ayer and Shirley students sharing a building for which the town of Shirley alone was still paying off its debt, equity issues surfaced. Mock said the Regional Leadership Advisory Group briefly discussed the matter at one point.

Consisting of Ayer and Shirley town and school officials and/or their representatives, the group was established as an offshoot of the Ayer-Shirley educational partnership and tasked with hashing out financial issues and other topics of mutual interest or concern.

The topic came up “based on questions from Shirley about Ayer sharing the middle school debt,” Mock said. “It seemed then to be temporary, so the issue was dropped.”

Then, in March this year, the building project direction changed.

In April, Shirley town officials brought the issue up again.

The concern they expressed to him and Building Committee Chairman Murray Clark was that “Shirley was still on the hook for the middle school debt,” Mock said, “even though Ayer students shared the building.”

He and Clark and ASRSD School Committee then- chairman Patrick Kelly met with Ayer Selectmen and Finance Committee chairmen and the Ayer town administrator to talk about how the matter might be resolved, Mock said.

But the fair share concept in this case presented practical and legal challenges. For example, there’s no buy-in mechanism for pre-existing buildings in the regional agreement or a debt-sharing formula for capital projects that pre-date the region.

Nor could the town of Ayer agree to pay part of Shirley’s remaining middle school debt, since one municipality cannot take on another’s debt, Mock explained.

Seeking a window of opportunity for Ayer to pitch in, the group looked at the issue “in the context of the high school building project,” Mock explained.

It seemed like a logical option, since capital debt for the high school project would be shared by both member towns, per a percentage split spelled out in the agreement.

“We then met with Shirley representatives in July,” Mock continued, and at a public forum in August, Kelly introduced the debt-sharing notion to the public for the first time.

There was no formula worked out at the time, except for the obvious contingency that the high school project had to pass for the proposed new debt-sharing setup to work.

“For this to occur, we needed a mechanism,” Mock continued.

A kind of balanced payment formula was created by which Ayer contributes more toward the high school debt and thus covers its fair share of the middle school debt. Beginning in fiscal 2014, the scenario would continue until Shirley’s middle school debt is paid off.

An amendment to the regional agreement is required to retrofit the formula for the purpose.

To that end, the attorney who drafted the regional agreement was asked to draft a proposal. The upshot was a draft warrant article for the two Town Meetings to consider.

Tight Timeline

Although Ayer’s fall TM isn’t until Oct. 22, Shirley’s is set for Sept. 24, with selectmen expected to close the warrant on Monday, Aug. 20.

Thus the sense of urgency. “That’s why we’re here,” Mock said.

But the warrant article language is subject to changes via public input.

Per an amendment to the regional agreement that voters passed last fall, any proposal to change the document — that is, future amendments — calls for public hearings in both towns. Given the advance notice requirement for public hearings, time is short. “We’re right on the cusp,” Mock said.

That said, the language could, if necessary, be amended after the warrant is printed or even on Town Meeting floor, provided that the change is within the context of the original article and not a complete rewrite.

With public hearing dates pending, the committee voted unanimously on two related items. First, to amend the regional agreement “regarding apportionment of secondary school capital debt” and second to authorize submittal of the warrant article for fall Town Meetings.