SHIRLEY -- During the Shirley Finance Committee's meeting with members of the Ayer Shirley Regional School District Building Committee, FinCom Vice Chairman Mike Swanton pressed the committee on the high school renovation's "affordability as it pertains to the town."
During the regionalization process several years ago, an estimate of $30 to $35 million had been floated as the price tag for a renovated middle-high school "that would also have taken care of our Lura White (Elementary School) problem -- we would not have to renovate that," he said, referring to the plan to then move Shirley's elementary school students into the current middle school building.
The building committee's current high school-only renovation option, recently approved by the Massachusetts State Building Authority, is estimated to cost about $50 million and "doesn't solve the Lura White problem," Swanton lamented.
He then challenged members of the building committee to take 20 percent out of the cost of the project and still offer the same educational capability.
Building Committee Chairman Murray Clark replied that the committee had been working together for some time and was neither looking at a building with any frills, nor "tossing around figures." He said that the committee would not be releasing specific figures "until we know where we are."
"We are on the same page as you are," he said, explaining the thoroughness of the vetting process for cost estimates, while
The Evolution of the High School-Only Option
"I do think the project and people's thinking is a little bit of a victim of some of the assumptions that were made," stated ASRSD Superintendent Carl Mock.
Earlier in the planning process, he explained, the MSBA had said that it would support buildings of not much less than1,000 students. "When the dust finally settled about that issue, we were at 860 kids.
"That 860 students for grades 6 to 12 is what we assumed we were shooting for, and for good reason. That would help to solve the Lura White problem."
But after the submission of the building committee's first preferred middle-high school renovation option, people on the committee started questioning a couple of things.
"One was that we started out with a middle-high school, but with information from people who worked there in Ayer, including (long-time principal) Don Parker, teachers, and others, there was a real emphasis that the high school and middle school operations had integrity.
"The most common theme was that the middle school was like a poor stepchild of the high school. There were also issues we wanted to address in terms of mixing 11-to-12-year-olds with 17-to-18-year-olds.
Mock said that building committee vice chair Mitch Kahn had said to him, "Here you are talking about educational issues, but I'm not sure that is what this building is getting us. I don't think we are getting this in terms of this design."
"There was also the question of affordability," Mock went on. The project was estimated to cost in excess of $70 million.
Mock said that, even with 67 percent reimbursement from the MSBA, with Ayer picking up about 20 percent based on current enrollment, and Shirley, 13 percent, "We could not conceive that the towns could afford that."
There was also the issue of the $2.5 to $3 million cost of renovating the middle school to convert it into an elementary school.
"We had a building not meeting our educational desires and getting very expensive. It didn't feel as if we were doing a feasibility study. It felt like we were doing a pre-prescribed middle school-high school option.
"But we had a very successful middle school building that was filling the bill. So we asked if MSBA might consider another approach. We didn't think we were allowed to do this.
"We thought MSBA wouldn't talk about it," added Clark. However, there had been a change in leadership at MSBA.
Early on, the committee had determined that there would be a maximum of 430 middle-high school students from each of the towns. "But we want to reverse that trend of losing kids," said Mock, who added that he began to realize "we can do more.
"The MSBA said 'yes, we can study those options and give you a new enrollment figure. That figure was 500 students, which is something I think we can beat.
"Look at the communities around us who are really struggling. I think in a few years we could attract just not more of our own kids, but kids from other schools. We already have a lot of kids from other towns.
"Why do we care?" asked ex-officio FinCom member and Shirley Town Accountant Bobbi Jo Colburn.
"Because we get $5,500 per kid," Mock replied. "Why would we not want to attract kids to bring a revenue source in, as well. So that is when we decided to look at this and we did some comparison.
"I find it interesting that all the members from Shirley voted for just the high school, not just for the education, but because it was more affordable."
What About Lura White?
Mock said that the LAW building has many deficiencies, but that "it has a lot more life in it than we had imagined. People who have done some analysis believe it still has some life in it, and I am one of those."
There will be costs associated with the building in the future, but if the high school project is successful, said Mock, he sees that work at between five and 10 years down the road. "Whatever happens with it depends on our work with MSBA, and the extent of that work."
Mock said that the committee's chosen integrated design firm, Symmes Maini & McKee Associates, has determined that renovations to bring the building up to code with appropriate classroom sizes, heating, ventilation, mechanical systems, and so forth, may account for a fifth of the total cost of the renovation.
When Swanton pressed the committee on the projected cost to "repair, fix, renovate, expand -- whatever we need to do to bring Lura White to where it will have a 20- to 30-year life expectancy," Mock replied, "Right now both towns are operating on a very poor premise. We let those buildings go."
He said that the problems with the towns' elementary school buildings had been exacerbated by the lack of money put into them. "It's a circular issue. We are paying for other towns to educate our kids. If we can bring money back (to the school district), we can bring in the money to renovate them.
"What we do over that time and what we do as a town with this decision will determine what happens to LAW. What happens rests within this community, just like what happens to Page Hilltop rests with people in Ayer. What is affordable and what makes the most sense?"