SHIRLEY -- "What's the plan for Lura White?" asked Shirley Finance Committee Chairman Frank Kolarik, referring to the condition of the elementary school in Shirley.
The building was built and added on to in the 1930s, '50s and '70s.
Kolarik was addressing Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Superintendent and School Building Committee member Carl Mock, Director of Finance and School Building Committee member Evan Katz, and Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee Chair Joyce Reischutz at the last meeting of the Finance Committee.
The question came up after a detailed discussion of the proposed Ayer-Shirley Regional High School renovation project, which will be voted on in both towns on Nov. 17. The two votes in each town on that day will be to allow the School Committee to borrow the funds and to approve the debt exclusion for the project.
"A couple of things," replied Mock. "In the short term, we can probably not make significant capital improvements right now. We don't have the budget to do that, just like at Page Hilltop (in Ayer).
"If we can stop the tide of choice-out (at the high-school level), there are some aspects we want to address with that building. The heating and ventilation system needs work, particularly in the '50s wing. The roof is in relatively good shape, except for a leak we are chasing. The boiler is working and not terribly old.
"The second answer is, we need to look at the project long term.
Why change course?
Kolarik's concern, he said, stemmed from the initial assessment of the School Committee that the high-school renovation project would be for a middle and high school. In that scenario, Lura A.White Elementary School (LAW) would close and its students moved to the retrofitted middle-school building.
Mock's response was that the cost for the combined middle-high school project would have been about 125 percent higher. "I don't see how you could do anything but break the bank in that case," he said, adding his belief that LAW will not need major upgrades for the next 10 to 12 years..
"If we are successful in stemming the tide of some of the choice-out, that may free up funds so you could start to do some type of project -- put money in because we are not spending it on choice out," said Finance Committee co-chairman Mike Swanton. "If the town and district work together, the money could be put back in."
Noting that there are also problems with the elementary school building in Ayer, Mock suggested that 10 to 12 years out, the two communities might want to consider a regional elementary school.
"If the high-school project should be approved, and, given everything else here, we will have a structure that is safe that is less than 20 years old. To have two-thirds of our school facilities less than 15 years old is not a bad position to be in given everything else in terms of infrastructure. We haven't done a lot to our capital infrastructure other than capital equipment in our Lura White infrastructure," said Shirley Town Treasurer Kevin Johnston.
Reischutz added that the Building Committee had an assessment of the elementary schools done prior to the determination that the high-school only option was the way to go.
"(The architectural firm) didn't find anything unsafe or unhealthy," she said.
Pressed by Kolarik to make the decision to move to the high school-only option clear to the voters, Mock reiterated that the Building and School committees have a commitment that LAW will be functional for 10 to 12 years.
"If I have a fear at all in any of this, Frank, we run the risk of doing what has been done the last 10 years -- allowing the buildings to degrade," he said.
The choice-out issue
"We are spending a lot of money to educate kids not in our buildings, but in other communities' buildings," Mock continued. "Some research we have done on places that had major projects done, and what happened before and after the projects, the difference is pretty dramatic. We can put money not just into our programs, but our facilities, and then we could get another 10 to 12 years out of them."
Katz explained that most of the choicing-out of the district is done at the high-school level. He said that about 148 students had choiced-out this year, out of a foundation enrollment of 1,700. Most of that nine percent came from the high school, and about 100 of them attend area charter schools.
"We are not going to wipe that out, but we can be a better choice," added Mock.
"The (building) project won't bring families back, but it will stop the flow (out of the district)," said Reischutz.
Added Mock, "Even in the last year, there has been some moderation of that trend. We see the need for more programming that allows students to have a more experiential opportunity. We currently don't have a broadcasting or TV production studio, just remnants of an after-school program. But we will have an actual space used during the day, and Ayer public access will use it after school hours, just as we use SPACO at the middle school."
"We didn't want to just redo the building to be up to code and look nicer," he later commented. "We really need to think about things in the future that give us flexibility in programming -- some we hadn't even thought about before.
"In choosing a designer, we had to project what we needed over the next 50 years, and I think we have that in this building. We didn't go to this building just to keep Lura White.
"With the middle-high school option, he said, "We were getting an inferior program at significantly more money -- a $76 million project.
"When you take a look at the figures, a middle school-high school project cost to Shirley would have been 125 percent higher than what we are proposing here, and I find it difficult to believe people would have thought that would be affordable right now."
With the 66 percent reimbursement rate from the state building authority, if Ayer votes on Oct. 22 to help Shirley pay off its remaining debt on the middle-school building, Ayer and Shirley's cost for the renovated high school would be about $19.4 million, paid out over 20 years.