SHIRLEY – Despite challenges posed by the “new normal” hybrid/remote-learning program the Ayer Shirley School District launched in September, the budget the School Committee brought to selectmen in a joint session with the Finance Committee last week looked like business as usual.
There were no surprises, no unexpected big-ticket expenses that might cause assessments to rocket up. In fact, the $30.1 million total budget proposal for fiscal 2022 is lower than last year’s certified budget of $30.6 million.
Ayer and Shirley assessments went up slightly, 2.1% and 2.5%, respectively. The same presentation was to be given to Ayer town officials later in the week.
Before the final version is certified, the School Committee will hold a public hearing on the budget, as required by state law.
Opening the PowerPoint presentation, Superintendent of Schools Mary Malone reiterated the message she has been sharing since day one and still stands by today, she said: “Great schools create vibrant communities.”
The same goes for the district’s mission and vision “…to engage and inspire” students, grow future leaders, and prepare them for college and the work world.
The news Malone reported wasn’t all on the plus side. District enrollment, for example, is down by 79 students. But the downward slip isn’t unique. It reflects what’s happening in districts across the state due to the pandemic, she said.
“We hope to start with full enrollment next year,” she said, when students, hopefully, will be back in school full time.
Total district enrollment is 1,603, compared to 1,682 last year. With out-of-district placements included, the student population totals 1,638 this year, versus 1,716 last year.
Currently, there are 414 students at the high school, 112 at the middle school, 328 at Lura A. White Elementary and 515 at Page Hilltop Elementary.
School-choice figures – in and out of district – have fluctuated over the years, as have the number of students attending charter schools and Nashoba Valley Technical High School, the regional high school in Westford to which Shirley and Ayer both belong.
Ninety nine students attended other public school districts under the state school-choice program last year, while 110 did so this year. Choice-in numbers were 118 this year and 130 last year.
Either way, state aid for those students goes to the receiving district.
Special-education enrollment has trended up, in particular due to a spike in diagnosed cases of autism at the preschool level, while the number of students in the English language learners program, or ELL, is “pretty stable,” Malone said.
Of the 58 students in that category, 33 are at Page Hilltop, where the district’s beginners and newcomers program is based.
Out-of-district placements represent 8.9% of the total budget, Malone said, ranging from
$36,663 to $312,344. The lower number could be the cost for just one student, she said.
Finance Director William Plunkett sketched out “budget drivers” and gave an overview of the process, which starts with assumptions and projections and includes year-to-year comparisons. Total revenue, for example, is down from last year, he said, with the dip mostly due to transfers and transportation reimbursements the district didn’t get this year.
On the expense side, charter-school tuition went up, he said.
The top expenses are health insurance and salaries, he said. Most revenue comes from state aid.
Both Ayer and Shirley are assessed annually for their shares of the budget. Explaining the percentage split, Plunkett noted calculations that include “rolling average” enrollment figures and each town’s required local contribution, a formula set by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Department of Revenue that determines what each town is “able to
pay,” he said. The latter calculation is based on property values and average income.
This year, the total assessment, with debt rolled in, is $19.8 million, which is a 2.3% increase over last year. The debt is the outstanding balance for prior building projects. The middle school debt, for example, is dwindling, Plunkett said, and the total bill is decreasing by about $10,000 per year as the loan is paid off .
This year, Shirley’s proposed assessment is $7.9 million, up 2.5%, while Ayer’s is $11.8 million, up
2.1% from the previous year.
Summing up, Malone noted work done at the two elementary schools, both older buildings that reportedly are in good shape as a result.
Some new equipment was anticipated in the district’s capital plan, while other purchases were pandemic-related, such as upgrades to the HVAC system. At White School, exterior improvements included extending playground pavement so students can get out for recess almost every day, Malone said.
Malone also listed some of the items on the to-do list, such as repairing a shed roof and replacing crumbling curbstones at the middle school.
“And, of course, the fields project,” she said.
In conclusion, the state of the district is “very strong,” she said, adding, “We’ve tried to present a fair and reasonable budget for taxpayers.”
Shirley Town Administrator Mike McGovern then rolled out a draft of the municipal budget. The best part is that it’s balanced, he said.
With $400,000 in stabilization funds to start the year, a new town accountant on board and grants
included in the big picture, the town’s prospects look good. Reserves are in good shape, McGovern said, while other communities are “eating into” theirs.
McGovern called the budget a “pretty good accomplishment” in an unprecedented pandemic year. He acknowledged that as departments continue to report in on their needs, the bottom line, $12.4 million (compared to $12.2 million last year) could shift some, but projected local receipts and state aid figures look solid so far.
McGovern said he will report back to the board regularly.
“You have given me the leeway to get things done,” McGovern told the board. “We’re in a good place.”
In other business, the board appointed Deb Seely to the Devens Enterprise Commission, to fill a vacancy.
Operating under the auspices of Mass Development, DEC is a one-stop permit board for Devens.
Established after the former military base became a civilian community, the DEC roster includes
appointed members from stakeholder towns, Ayer, Harvard and Shirley and the Devens community, as well as members appointed by the governor.