AYER -- The Ayer Board of Selectmen and Ayer Finance Committee were briefed Sept. 5 on the proposed Ayer-Shirley Regional High School addition project.
Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock said since significant work would occur while school is in session, Consigli Construction will serve as a construction manager for the estimated $56 million project. Having expert oversight will also bring a 1 percent bump in the reimbursement provided by the Massachusetts School Building Administration.
Originally an 860-student middle/high school project, Mock said the approach changed to a high school only project due to cost and other reasons. "It seemed we were getting less and less of what we were hoping for out of this process."
When the district pitched a high-school only project to the MSBA, Mock acknowledged the springtime change "did sort of throw a curve ball to the communities."
In May, the MSBA approved the idea and capped enrollment at 495 students. Mock said the approach will allow for larger classrooms, separate identities for the schools, and will result in a secondary school being located in each town.
SMMA Architecture Senior Vice President Alex Pitkin said the project will meet LEED Silver standards for energy-conscious and sustainable construction. The status will spark another 2 percent reimbursement bonus from MSBA.
Pitkin said the current building has seven "very distinct entry points" which are confusing, not aesthetically pleasing and hamper efficient use of the building. SMMA proposes elimination of "dead-ended wings" and relocating the courtyard to improve hallway circulation. Notably, handicap access is limited at the school, he said.
The auditorium is larger than the state permits presently. SMMA recommends reducing the facility from 900 to 600 seats and converting the present upper-tier seating into a control room for stage productions.
The auditorium seats are frequently filled now, noted Selectman Frank Maxant. "Try again."
"We made that argument repeatedly until we were finally told no," said Mock. "We pled our case long and hard on that one."
The school orientation would shift. The "front" entrance of the school would instead be where the current side entrance is, with drop off/pick up near the parking lot. "That will bring us right into the heart of the school and access the gym and auditorium," said Pitkin.
The first floor entranceway would serve as a hub, channeling students out to the special education classrooms, the library/media center, gymnasium, auditorium, choral space, and more. The layout would leverage "key adjacencies" like locating science, technology and math classes near one another, said Pitkin.
Larger classrooms are planned. Gone will be "double-loaded, egg-crate style" classrooms lining either side of a straight hallway.
Pitkin said the 50-year-old design of the second floor would remain largely the same, housing art classrooms and other teaching space in rooms boasting high ceilings and replete with windows.
SSMA Executive Vice President and COO Joel Seeley said schematics were filed Aug. 9. The MSBA votes on the proposal on Oct. 3. If approved, the local decision making process will proceed. A tentative Nov. 17 debt exclusion date is being discussed.
The new wing would open to students in August 2014. Overall, the project would be completed by August 2015.
Addressing middle school debt overload
The high school-only project in Ayer raised a new issue -- Shirley taxpayers alone carry the construction debt on Shirley Middle School. The towns own their respective school buildings which are leased to the school district.
Opened in 2003, Shirley Middle School housed only Shirley students for its first seven years. Ayer students merged into the Shirley Middle School when the school district went online for the 2011-2012 school year.
The regional school agreement between the district and the towns contemplates new, but not preexisting, capital debt for school projects. Mock said attorneys have advised "one town cannot assume another town's capital debt ...even if Ayer wanted to do so."
So, to share the burden and provide relief to Shirley, Mock said the committee proposes Ayer taxpayers shoulder a greater portion of the high school renovation project through fiscal 2029. The total cost to Ayer would be $2 million of the $5.6 million Shirley Middle School financed project.
Mock suggested it's a better deal for Ayer taxpayers than the earlier plans for an estimated $70 million blended high/middle school project. Under the earlier scenario, Mock estimated Ayer's share at $3 million or more.
Voters must first agree to modify the regional agreement to allow for the debt sharing scenario. If the votes fail, "Frankly we don't know what we're going to do," admitted Mock.
"Hours old" information from MSBA information pegs the project at $56,573,765 with roughly 70 percent ($37,195,769) reimbursement by the state. "That's an extraordinary figure," said Mock.
Ease the pain
Maxant asked if Ayer's contribution towards the Shirley Middle School debt could be offset by the five-year, $500,000 credit that Ayer has agreed to pay to "ease the pain" for Shirley's regionalization assessments.
"Can that be included as a credit to Ayer?" asked Maxant. "To really level the playing field for Ayer?"
"Mr. Maxant, that's not our proposal," answered Mock. "It was not an attempt to resolve the basic operating cost assessments the towns agreed to at the time the region was approved. That simply was not the intent of this process."
Is there a higher LEED "Gold" standard for schools, asked selectman Jim Fay. No, said Seeley. LEED Silver is the "highest the state will go."
Selectman Gary Luca asked if the "sustainability part" added significantly to the overall project cost of the project to attain LEED Silver status. "Does it cost $1.2 million to make those changes or is it $3 million?"
Building envelope and energy system upgrades were "all factored into the overall estimate," said Seeley.
What of the many murals and memorial benches around the school grounds, asked selectman Pauline Conley. "Are these going to be preserved?"
High resolution photography is afoot to memorialize murals, said School Committee member Pat Kelley.
Conley had asked at a hearing on the project on Sept. 3 whether Shirley could refinance its debt to lower its interest repayment. School District Business Manager Evan Katz said that's a possibility for 2015. The rate is 4 percent now.
Former Ayer selectman and Building Committee Chair Murray Clark supports the high school scenario. The middle/high school proposal had costs that were "getting out of hand." While Mock estimated that price tag at $72 million, Clark said "I thought it would be $75 million or more."
Clark said the new proposal that shares Shirley's debt service was the "fair thing to do."
Selectman Christopher Hillman said he finds the current student drop-off/pick-up situation in the front of the high school to be "atrocious" and was excited with a retooled approach.
Finance Committee member John Kilcommins asked if school choice, charter and vocational school attrition have slowed since the project has been redefined as a high-school only project.
"We're currently sending out $2.3 million a year to educate kids in other schools," said Kilcommins. "So you're outsourcing 10 cents of every dollar you're getting now" of the district's $24 million budget.
Mock said final enrollment figures firm up in October. Mock said last June the district was "encouraged" to discover 74 percent of students opted to attend the high school. The year before the figure was just 55 percent.
"Once a kid choices out, it's generally for several years," said Building Committee Vice Chairman Mitch Khan. "Kids want to stay with their friends and parents want the kids in town."
Maxant asked whether the land under the middle school is owned by Shirley or MassDevelopment. Reischutz said the MassDevelopment "carved that out to be Shirley land."
"So the deed has not transferred yet?" asked Maxant. "MassDevelopment's entire cost for the DREZ was zero. They should transfer that land for little cost."
There must be two-town approval within 120 days of the MSBA's anticipated Oct. 3 approval else "we're going to drop to the bottom of the pile at MSBA," warned Mock. "We don't want a Christmastime debt exclusion (vote)." A Nov. 17 debt exclusion vote is tentatively planned.
The Ayer selectmen will spend more time discussing the request on Sept. 25.