SHIRLEY -- Fred and Claudette Williams may be called "semi-retired" but nobody could say they're retreating from society, the community or causes they care about.

They've decided to weigh in on the proposed Ayer-Shirley Regional School District high school building project and the debt exclusion residents will be asked to accept to help pay for it.

When those questions are asked at the Nov. 17 elections, they plan to vote yes.

Claudette was born in Shirley. Fred hails from Fitchburg and taught on the West Coast before he began teaching math at Ayer High School in 1964.

He later became assistant superintendent of schools for School Union #42, a shared administrative model that split supervisory duties among three school districts: Ayer, Shirley and Boxborough.

He went on to become deputy commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Claudette taught for 22 years in the Ayer Public Schools before she changed careers and became a social worker.

The two Ayer schoolteachers would meet and marry, living in Ayer for 19 years and in Shirley for 25 years.

Good old days

The Williamses are interested in the project from several slants, they said. As citizens, local taxpayers, and especially because they can speak from experience about what a spiffy new school building with modern academic amenities can do for education.

Fred and Claudette both taught at Ayer High School during the 1960s, when it was new and shiny and offered everything an educator, a student or a community could want. They believe it can be that way again, and that's why they support the building project.

But the high-school building that shone like a new silver dollar in their day is old and tarnished now, with a crumbling infrastructure. Its once state-of-the-art equipment and science labs, circa 1960s, are outdated and inadequate.

With a makeover on the drawing board and $37 million in state reimbursement on the table, now is the time to act, they said, calling the upcoming decision a "turning point for Shirley."

As a former DOE official, Williams doubts that a deal like that will come along again. "SBA once reported to me," he said, naming the former School Building Authority that preceded MSBA, which has agreed to reimburse the Ayer-Shirley district for 70 percent of covered project costs. "This is unbelievable," he said.

They spoke as educators and as seniors, but first and foremost, the Williamses said they want parents to see what they do, that the "impressive" school system Ayer once had can be reprised, offering today's children the educational opportunities and 21st-century skills they need to succeed in life.

They believe that educational investment now is the only way to ensure a sustainable socio-economic future for the town, and that a "new" high school with all the right stuff will help turn the choice-out exodus around that is costing the district millions of dollars in lost state revenue each year.

To paraphrase a slogan borrowed from the former Ayer School Committee, there are still "good things happening in the Ayer Public Schools every day," but the high-school building needs this major makeover, without which its mission is circumscribed by design.

"The reality is that we are not presently providing our students with the necessary tools and information, particularly in the areas of technology and science," Fred Williams said. A school constructed 50 years ago, even with repairs, can't do that, he said.

There are many public school options out there for proactive parents to explore, from school choice to charter schools to Nashoba Tech, the regional vocational and technical high school district Shirley has belonged to for many years and which Ayer recently joined. The school is "as good as it gets" for a modern vocational school, Williams said.

The School Committee would agree, but a targeted vocational high-school program isn't for everybody and there are only so many slots anyway. The same goes for charter school and choice, and Williams noted that many families can't afford to send their kids to private high schools. 

High-school programs Ayer-Shirley offers must be competitive to capture students whose parents shop around, but it must also meet the needs of students for whom it might be the only option, Williams said. So a "new" high school is a giant step in that direction.

"It was my first teaching job in Massachusetts, Williams said of his stint at Ayer High. Everything about it was impressive -- buildings, faculty. It can be that way again," he said.

"It was exciting" to teach there then, his wife chimed in. "There was so much energy!" She recalled great rapport among students and faculty and enthusiastic parent and community involvement. She, too, hopes for a renaissance and believes the high-school renovation and addition project is the way to go.