AYER -- The final public forum before the ASRSD high school building project comes before voters this Saturday was held in Ayer Wednesday night. The presentation was basically the same as the night before in Shirley, but there was more audience interaction.
Peter Frederick, a financial advisor from Shirley said he was grateful for the "effort and good will" that went into planning the renovation and addition aimed at transforming the 50-year old high school building. But the reason it's in such bad condition can be traced to "ten years of decay," he said.
"I will vote yes, but I have concerns," he said. For example, how will the project stay on track, given the shape the economy is in? "There are no guarantees to any of this."
After the project is complete, the community will have to keep up the building, he said. "It goes beyond pretty pictures."
Earlier, an SMMA architect put those pictures on screen, showing an improved campus, "logical" interior layout, renovated, reconfigured and geared to 21st century learning and a new academic wing.
It will take commitment from the community to ensure the building meets student needs for the next 50 years, Frederick pointed out. And the school system must continue to improve. "It means getting good teachers," he said, which can be costly.
"Our goal should be not just to build a school but to get our kids educated," he said.
Edward Oulette, of Ayer, also voiced concerns. "Why wasn't a renovation-only option explored?" versus the bigger, renovation and addition project, he asked, with MSBA reimbursement costed out on that basis.
Citing the agency's website, he said that up to 63-percent reimbursement might be expected for such a project. "We know the economy is in trouble," he said.
"It's not the building that teaches students," Oulette went on.
He questioned whether the expected choice-in, choice-out rebalancing that proponents say is a key component of the proposed project, would be enough to "sustain" it. He also doubted that "a new building alone" can being back students attending other public schools via the School Choice program, with allows parents to make those choices for their kids and siphons revenue from the sending district to pay tuition to the receiving district.
The choice-out imbalance is costing the district "millions" in lost revenue each year, School Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Kelly said.
"We don't expect to get those kids back," Building Committee Chairman Murray Clark said in response to Ouellette. But this solution - chosen from over a dozen options - is expected to last for the next 40 to 50 years, stem the choice-out flow and eventually even bring in more students, adding revenue to enhance programs and sustain the building.
Kelly added that education is different now than it was when the high school was built in the 1960's. "There was no Special Education" then, and there wouldn't be enough room for SPED classrooms in a renovated middle and high school building.
The renovation and addition option for that would have cost $72 million. "There never was a renovation only option," he said. "We're actually bringing a smaller project forward."
Kevin Bresnahan, of Ayer, painted a dismal picture of what would happen if voters reject the project. The cost of doing nothing would be drastic now and worse later.
"I disagree with Pat Kelly that the Choice-out trend would simply continue," Bresnahan posited. Families won't wait for high school to choice out their kids, he said; they're doing research right now, looking at other school districts with Choice slots to get their kids into, as soon as possible.
"If this doesn't pass" he predicted an exodus, starting in elementary school. Once they find an available seat, they will grab it, he said, guaranteeing the student can stay until high school graduation and offering fist-choice opportunities to siblings. "You'll see a rush at all grade levels," he said.
Not only would choice-out costs go "through the roof," the students and their "concerned, involved" parents are a loss to the district academically and socially as well.