SHIRLEY -- Selectmen at their meeting Monday night settled a matter that's been up in the air since last week, when Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock and School Committee Chairman Joyce Reischutz asked them to hold two separate but related elections on the same date.
The date is now tentatively set for Saturday, Nov. 17, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The two elections are a district election seeking approval for the high-school building project and a debt exclusion aimed at covering the town's share of the cost for renovating and adding a new wing to the existing high-school building in Ayer.
They also asked for the same time frame, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., coinciding with limits set by state law (MGL#71, Section 16N) for regional school district elections.
The catch is that town elections have no such constraints and historically are held from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on a weekday. Selectmen were reluctant to tamper with that tradition.
After lengthy discussion, the board voted two to one in favor of the original request.
Chairman Andy Deveau "respectfully" voted no.
"We agree it's cost-effective to hold it (school district election) on the same day" as the debt exclusion, he said. But he said he felt strongly about limiting voter access to the polls and held out against it.
Before the vote, Mock was asked about the School Committee's take on the issue.
Individual members he spoke to after last week's session
Selectman David Swain conceded it's a prickly issue. But since the date for the School District election was a Saturday, a break from the traditional time frame for town elections seems reasonable and shouldn't present much hardship in terms of voters getting to the polls during the eight-hour period set for both.
Two different time periods, however, would be a bad idea, he said.
He asked the town clerk to weigh in.
"I have concerns about having two elections together any day," Town Clerk Amy McDougall said. After enumerating the options and sharing her slant on the pros and cons, she concluded that the same day-same time scenario was the most favorable, or more accurately, the least problematic.
But a split time frame would be worst of all. The state does not recommend it, she said. Nor does she, in part because the offset timing could cause trouble at the polls.
"My election workers shouldn't be subject to anger" if voters were to arrive in time to vote on one ballot question but not the other, she said.
As another point in favor, McDougall said the Nov. 6 presidential election -- with traditional 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. hours -- would offer an opportunity for voters to pick up absentee ballots if they can't make it to the polls during designated times on Nov. 17.
Information about the upcoming ballot questions might be available at that time, she said.
Before voting for a motion to approve the election set-up, Selectman Kendra Dumont noted the "confusing" array of possible configurations the board had discussed. McDougall's logic made sense, she said, especially the absentee ballot option.
In the end, she agreed that holding the two elections on the same day was the most efficient option, but the two-tiered voting cycle would cause too much confusion, which is why she went along with the parallel elections, albeit reluctantly.
"I hate to take those hours away..." Dumont said.
McDougall said she did, too. "But "I think the split time frame is a very bad idea."
A decision the selectmen made earlier in the meeting also tied in, removing a layer of confusion from the discussion. They agreed to hold the town override election -- if there is one -- on Nov. 6 with the presidential election, rather than Nov. 17.
The final word on whether the override election is held or not will come from Town Meeting.
The question hinges on whether a bid to hire another police officer -- which Deveau said he plans to champion at the Sept. 24 Special Town Meeting -- passes muster, with funding for the position contingent on passage of a Proposition 2 1/2 tax override. If so, the override election will be held Nov. 6, during the presidential election.
Elections slated for Nov. 17 will include two ballots.
One ballot will be a district-wide vote that must be held in the other member community of Ayer at the same time. It seeks approval for the high-school building project and authorization for the School Committee to borrow money for it.
The other ballot will be a debt exclusion that seeks to temporarily bypass the limits of Proposition 2 1/2 to fund the town's share of project costs.
As Mock pointed out, the School Committee has promised not to use that borrowing power unless debt exclusions pass in both towns.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority, or MSBA, which has agreed to reimburse the district for over 70 percent of covered project costs, will wrap its approval process with a vote on Oct. 3. The Nov. 17 date for the district vote can be confirmed after that, Mock said.
In the meantime, selectmen would like to see the ballot questions.
Deveau asked Mock when they'd be ready. The district's legal counsel is working on the language now, he answered, and drafts will be available at the Regional School Committee meeting later in the week.