SHIRLEY -- Nearing the end of a long public process, during which the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Building Committee, Superintendent Carl Mock and various other emissaries have repeatedly stated the goals, perks and parameters of the proposed high school renovation and addition project, Selectman Chairman Andy Deveau said Monday night that he's still worried about what is not being said.

For example, how much it will cost, down the road, to renovate Shirley's aging Lura A. White Elementary School, which in a previous building project scenario was touted as "falling down," with an estimated $20 million price tag for fixing it.

In that scenario, the high school building in Ayer was to be renovated, as a middle and high school and Lura White would be closed. With the elementary school moved to the Shirley Middle School, retrofitted for the purpose, the town could then sell the old school building to help pay for the new one, he said.

But the plan changed. Faced with rising cost estimates, as high as $72 million for a combined middle-high school, the Building Committee set its sights on a high school only project instead.

But it seems the earlier version and its "wild guess" $35 million price tag still resonates.

Deveau brought the issue up during a presentation by Assessor Ron Marchetti and town Treasurer Kevin Johnston, in which they laid out projected tax impacts of the $56.6 million project on the town and taxpayers. Shirley's share would be $7 million, they said.


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"In my opinion, it's a big piece," Deveau said. "We have information about the high school, but not a realistic picture of long-range education costs, including Lura White."

"We know the original numbers presented to us were inaccurate," Deveau said. But to say that a $35 million estimate segued to $72 million, translates to "an error of 100 percent," he said. By the same token, it might be assumed that the $20 million fix-up figure for Lura A. White could be 100 percent wrong, too, he posited.

Marchetti said that "unlike the old days," the selectmen's involvement with education costs in town will be limited, now that the school district has regionalized. "The difficulty for you is that the cost of education is the School Committee's responsibility," he said.

Maybe so, but Ayer's tax impact picture looks more detailed, Deveau said, showing a "debt scenario" with specifics added in, such as the cost of replacing the town hall roof and building new fire and police stations, among other things.

"Make no mistake...Ayer is a well-managed town," Marchetti responded. "They've already built capital improvements into their tax rate, which is split between residential and commercial.

But the two town's outstanding debt is within shouting range: $600 million in Shirley, $625 million in Ayer and "they're spending about the same," Marchetti said.

"The good news is we're getting closer on how we put data together so it can be compared," he said.

Summing up a figure-packed set of charts and tax schedules whose details are available on the school website, www.asrsd.org, and the town website, www.shirley-ma.gov, Marchetti said the tax bill on an average-valued home in Shirley, about $261,000, would go up by about 76 cents per thousand, or $240 if voters approve the school building project and a debt exclusion to help pay for it.

Incorporated in the calculations is a temporary shift in the capital assessment split, allowing Ayer to contribute its fair share toward Shirley's remaining debt on the middle school building, which is now a shared, regional facility but still owned by the town.

Based on a current estimated tax rate of $15.66, projected out over a twenty-year bond period and with other factors added in, such as annual increases on the total tax levy of 2.5 percent each year, Marchetti said the overall cost to the "average" taxpayer would be $4,798 paid in for the new school over 20 years.

These numbers were put together by the financial teams in Ayer and Shirley, including both boards of assessors and Finance Committees, he said. 

But Deveau said the lack of a long-range big picture to look at concerns him. "It's not misinformation but missing information," he said. "We wanted you to see today and 15 years into the future," with projected education costs.

In his view, the issue isn't just the high school project cost or the $37 million that the state - Massachusetts School Building Authority - has committed to the project via reimbursement to the district if voters say yes. Deveau painted a more complex picture.

"As taxpayers, we have two regional school districts, he said. The Ayer-Shirley district and Nashoba Tech, the vocational high school district the town belongs to, and which Ayer just joined. His aim would be to "bundle" what the town pays for both "to understand what we're spending on education."

Marchetti, while recognizing Deveau's desire for a flyover view, again reminded him that once the town opted to merge its public school district with Ayer's, the selectmen's role changed and there's less opportunity now than in the past to control education costs. But taxpayers still have a say.

"Ultimately, the voters are the boss," he concluded.