By Katina Caraganis
AYER -- Voters in Ayer and Shirley will have another big decision to make when they go to the polls Nov. 17 -- 11 days after casting their ballots for the next president of the United States.
Residents are being asked whether they will support a debt exclusion to fund a $56 million high-school renovation project.
Currently, the project is eligible to receive 70 percent reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which translates to about $36.8 million, with the remaining $19.8 million to be split by the towns based on enrollment numbers.
According to the MSBA, even though the district is footing about 30 percent of the bill, the ballot question must include the total price of the project.
In fiscal 2016, a debt payment of $218,775 will be spent for the initial project startup. That equates to a 2.4 percent increase for residents, or about a $100.18 increase for the average assessed home value of $261,235.
From fiscal 2017 to 2026, an amendment for debt sharing for the bonds on the current middle school will be paid off under a new agreement to the tune of $434,000.
Because of a majority of students who will attend the middle school reside in Ayer, while the town of Shirley continues to make debt-service payments on the bonds that were issued for the school, Ayer will pay a larger assessment for the high-school renovation until the middle-school bonds are paid.
During those years, Shirley's tax bills will increase 4.
Finally, from fiscal 2027 to 2036, the remaining payments on the high-school project will be paid off. Taxes in Shirley will be raised 6.7 percent, or about $272.46 for the average assessed home, during those years.
Throughout the process, the School Building Committee toyed with adding an additional $2.2 million to the project to include bleachers, lights, concessions and restrooms for patrons during athletic games.
But because the MSBA would not pay for those, the district opted not to include them in the plan.
The project includes renovations to major building systems including electrical, plumbing and windows. In addition, it will feature a common area in front of the school for student meetings and social events, a new library and media center, increased outdoor access for emergency vehicles and a rotary in front of the building to allow for better vehicular traffic.
Many of the entrances to the school will be eliminated from the Washington Street side of the school, and two academic wings in the rear of the building will be replaced with one larger academic wing.
Carl Mock, superintendent of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District says in an ideal world, a new school would have been ideal but would have cost nearly $75 million, a proposal that neither he nor the building committee believed would fly in both communities.
"A brand new school would have been wonderful, but in terms of the analysis of the costs and whether or not we needed to do that, we concluded it was not necessary," Mock said. "I'm hoping one of the things we've tried to make clear is that this is a project that is based on need and does not have a lot of extras in it. We did not pursue things we didn't think we could do it better for less money."
School Committee Chair Pat Kelly of Ayer said the deal the district got in the proposed scenario is much better than the one they would have gotten if they had pursued a brand new building.
"I absolutely think this is the best option possible. I think we get a better reimbursement rate than we would have with a brand new school," said Kelly. "A brand new school would have cost more and our reimbursement rate wouldn't have been as good because you get more points for how much renovation you do. From that perspective, I think it's the best of both scenarios."
A new school project would have cost about $72 million, but $3 million worth of upgrades would have needed to be done at the middle school to make it ready for elementary school students.
Mock acknowledged that both elementary schools need to be looked at in the future, but says working on one project at a time is the best way to proceed.
He said one option in moving forward with the elementary schools would be to consider creating one regional school.
"I think it's too early to tell what we may do with the elementary schools in both communities. When the time comes, that's one option that people should be considering. That would be really taking advantage of the regional approach," Mock said Friday, while noting that no decision has been made on the future of either school in the district.
"I'm not saying that's the way it would go but I think it would be one of the options people would consider," he said. "There might be some real advantages to that in terms of MSBA reimbursement."
Shirley's Bob Prescott, a former School Committee member, who sits on the regionalization committee, said while the scope of the high-school project has changed over time, he believes this is the best project for the district as a whole.
"I had to get my head around the plan at first because it was different than it was envisioned. I understand why the School Committee went in the direction it did," said Prescott. "This plan is clean, it works and it solves the high-school project for the two towns."
The deal, as proposed, also works in Shirley's favor, he said, because the town of Ayer has agreed to pay a share of Shirley's debt that was incurred on the middle-school project, which was built before regionalization efforts but now houses students from both towns.
"It's a great deal for Shirley because Ayer will pitch in on the rest of the capital expenditure for the middle school. I just think it needs to happen," Prescott said.
Students will remain in the high school during the renovation project, but will be moved to various parts of the building as construction merits.
"You have to be able to educate them at the same time. It's the same thing with regionalization, we had to run all of those districts while we were going through the process," noted Prescott. "That building is big enough to move classrooms. That was the plan and obviously that's the one going forward."
The project has also garnered support from the Finance Committees in Ayer and Shirley.
Shirley resident and Finance Committee member Bob Schuler was the only member opposing the project and ultimately voted against it Thursday night, saying the project should have addressed all the needs in the district, not just one.
"I think it's optimistic to think that school (Lura White) will last that long without any major renovations. I think it's overly optimistic to think teachers want to teach there," Schuler said at Thursday night's meeting. "I think it's also overly optimistic to think administrators want to run that building."
He emphasized that a detailed study of the whole school should be done to adequately address its needs.
"Generally I'm not as optimistic about the life expectancy of that school or that parents will want to send their kids in there in 10 years," he said. "I just feel like Lura White was left there hanging."
Follow Katina Caraganis on Twitter @kcaraganis.