AYER -- The plan to renovate Ayer-Shirley High School heads to a two-town vote on Nov. 17 following Town Meeting approval Monday to pay for a larger share of the work.
The change to the regional school agreement with Shirley passed easily on a voice vote. The shift offsets Shirley's debt load on the Shirley Middle School building. Shirley Town Meeting passed the change on Sept. 24.
The high school, built in 1962, was designed with "20th century learning" in mind, said Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee member Pat Kelly. Kelly argued that the time has come for a massive overhaul and addition for the school.
The towns pay $2 million a year to educate Ayer and Shirley students elsewhere. Kelly said projections were for the cost to swell to $3 million in fiscal 2018 without swift action to stem the tide.
Kelly also said some students opt for other districts based on infrastructure and facilities alone, lured by new computer labs, cafeterias and auditoriums. "Who can blame them?" said Kelly.
The state has agreed to pick up 70 percent of the $56 million regional high-school renovations. Two rear wings are to be removed and replaced with a state-of-the-art addition.
The Washington Street entrance will be replaced by an entrance and courtyard facing the side parking lot. The front door will serve as a hub to access all parts of the building.
In the spring, the district opted to renovate the building for high school-aged students only. Maintaining the Shirley Middle School allows those students to have their own identity and not live in the shadow of upper classmen and high school programming, said Kelly.
Affirming the split means each town would host one secondary and one elementary school. To aid in the district's goal, voters were asked to approve an amendment to the regional school agreement which effectively allows Ayer to shoulder more of the high-school project debt load to offset Shirley's existing middle-school debt burden.
Dual ballots will be presented to voters in each town on Nov. 17. Kelly said each requires a majority yes vote for the project to proceed. One ballot asks voters to approve of the project. The other ballot asks for a debt exclusion vote to finance the project outside the constraints of property tax-limiting Proposition 2 1/2.
Any negative result would kill the project. Kelly said the school district has no "plan B" if the proposal does not proceed as requested.
The Finance Committee stated that, based on projected financing estimates, the average Ayer homeowner (with a home valued at $271,600) would pay an added $202 a year to fund the shared debt service. Chairman Scott Houde said now's the time to move since construction and financing costs are "low and favorable."
Selectman Frank Maxant urged that Ayer be credited for $1 million "already fronted" toward the debt-sharing request. Maxant said Ayer has already agreed to shoulder more of the split in the assessments over the first five years of the district because "Shirley said we can't afford our fair share."
But resident Kevin Bresnahan said, "Shirley has already been paying for this building" by singularly shouldering the $5.6 million middle-school debt for the past decade, while Ayer students occupy a 60 percent majority of the seats. "We need to vote for this," said Bresnahan, who received a round of applause as he turned to sit down.
Selectman Gary Luca called the debt-sharing arrangement "a great deal for the town. We know we need work up here."
Luca said Ayer benefits from the Shirley partnership, arguing Ayer would have to shoulder more than $30 million if the towns weren't regionalized and the proposal was for Ayer to overhaul the building as a middle/high school.
"There would be no 60/40 split and we'd be up for all of it," said Luca. "So we save a chunk of money in voting for this. And everybody vote on Nov. 17, too."
The measure passed on a boisterous yes vote and one lone audible no vote.