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AYER — The Ayer Finance Committee on Sept. 12 discussed two looming school funding issues, each with its own separate vote in the fall.

Ayer-Shirley High School renovation project

The committee recapped its Sept. 5 joint meeting with selectmen on the proposed $56.7 million renovation of the Ayer-Shirley High School. A critical vote on the project by the Massachusetts School Building Authority is set for Oct. 3.

Affirmative Ayer and Shirley votes must follow for the project to proceed. At the towns’ respective fall Town Meetings, voters will be asked to consider changing the regional school agreement to allow Ayer to offset the pre-existing Shirley Middle School debt by picking up a larger portion of the high-school project debt.

Shirley’s original debt service for the school was $5.6 million. For the first seven years after it opened in 2003, the school serviced only Shirley students, but has since become the district’s middle school, with 60 percent enrollment from Ayer.

The towns are tentatively scheduled to vote on the debt-exclusion piece on Saturday Nov. 17.

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Houde admitted his initial reaction was “negative” to renovating the building for high school use only. But public presentations changed his mind. Separate secondary schools do “make sense,” said Houde, the father of a middle school student.

“Instead of living in the shadow of the high school,” the middle school population has space to create its own “identity,” said Houde. Houde also liked the idea of a secondary school being located in each town, as is the case with the district’s two elementary schools.

“We should pay our fair share” of the middle-school debt service, said Houde. The proposal is for Ayer to subsidize $1.9 million of the $5.6 million debt service on the middle school. Ayer would pay the sum over an estimated 13 fiscal year time frame by paying an additional sum each year toward Shirley’s share of the high-school debt. Ayer wouldn’t be legally responsible for Shirley’s middle-school debt, but the subsidy would ease Shirley’s burden.

“Look at it as an investment in Shirley” with the “ultimate goal” of getting the high school work completed, said Houde. “It’s the most important decision the two towns will make over the next 10 years … As a citizen, I’m willing to invest and pay my fair share of the middle school.”

Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon hoped the cost per household could be figured and circulated. “We’ve got just over two months until we have a vote,” said Muldoon.

Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock said information is available on the district’s website with “more to come … There’s a lot that’s going to unfold over the next few weeks.”

Muldoon said those on “fixed incomes” need to prepare for the vote. Houde said Finance Committee member John Kilcommins are compiling the data, including a look at the town’s other debt obligations. “We want to try to manage this so the impact is not devastating to taxpayers and residents.”

Finance Committee member Michael Pattenden said the high-school-only approach intertwined with the proposed middle-school debt obligations subsidy makes him “wildly less enthusiastic about the whole project for all kinds of reasons.”

Mock said Ayer isn’t being asked to “buy in” to the middle school, just to pay its “equitable share” of the debt.

“I don’t actually disagree or argue with what we’re doing,” said Pattenden. “We’re using the Shirley building, so we really ought to contribute towards it.”

Pattenden asked why the projected high school finance rate is being cast as 4.5 percent when rates are a point lower. Mock said the goal is to be “conservative rather than be too optimistic.”

While MSBA has recently estimated a $19.4 million local cost for the $56.7 million project, Mock said the district is talking in terms of $19.6 million locally to “give a more realistic figure of what might happen.”

Pattenden said, “When can we realistically expect figures that are 99.9 percent correct?”

“I’d think you’d first need authorization to borrow to know the interest rate,” said Selectman Gary Luca.

Mock said they’re preparing firmer figures but warned “the level of specificity you’re asking for may not be available except for the dollar figure of the project. Instead of downwardly adjusting the local share figures, Mock suggested “the taxpayers would want to hear a more conservative estimate than a more optimistic one.”

Without firm figures, “I ain’t going to vote for it,” said Pattenden. “Nor will most people … If that’s percent conservative, that’s fair enough.”

Pattenden said the price tag’s too high. He suggested the stakeholder officials produce one “piece of paper with all the numbers on it.”

Shirley fall Town Meeting is Sept. 24, while Ayer’s is Oct. 22. The tentative date for the school ballots is Saturday, Nov. 17.

Selectman Pauline Conley echoed Selectman Frank Maxant’s concerns of the prior week. “There should be some consideration of the $500,000 Ayer has to pay” towards the regionalization assessment equation. “If you want Frank’s support, it needs to be considered.”

“The way I look at it, it’s kind of separate,” said Houde.

“It can still be incorporated,” suggested Conley. Instead of the $2 million Ayer contribution towards the Shirley Middle School debt service, Maxant suggested a $500,000 credit to Ayer with a revised Ayer-to-Shirley middle school subsidy instead of $1.5 million.

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