SHIRLEY -- The Shirley Finance Committee voted 4-1 in favor of supporting the proposed $56.5 million Ayer-Shirley Regional High School renovation that is eligible for 70 percent reimbursement through the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

The project would create a larger, more user- and technology-friendly space that is more energy efficient than the current building. Two wings of the current structure would be demolished, a new wing added, and a new roof added to the current courtyard space, which would become the library/media center.

A small addition would provide space for band and chorus, and a second-floor addition would include new art and computer classrooms. There also would be improved spaces for special education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Making fiscal sense

Finance Committee Vice Chair Mike Swanton began the discussion about the project at the Nov. 1 meeting by asking if it makes reasonable financial sense.

"We have these funds available and there is a window on these funds," said Finance Committee member Lisa Maria Steinberg. "Lura White (Elementary) has to be dealt with at some point, but with the money available for the high school, I don't think we can turn it down."

Committee member Joe McNiff suggested considering not only the money available from the state, but also the amount (about 10 percent of the total) that Shirley would pay.

There is a direct correlation between the quality of an education in a town and the amount houses are worth," he said. "We have to put more money into the school system. When people hear that people in Shirley get a better education, that gets around."

When the housing market comes back -- and it will -- what causes the price of your house to go up is the demand, and if you have a better school system and a better facility, people tend to want to move in, especially those with children of school age," said Swanton.

The choice-out issue

ASRSD Superintendent Carl Mock estimated that the district currently spends 10 percent of its budget paying to educate students in other districts and charter schools, most of them at the high-school level. Although the choice-out numbers have declined since regionalization, the number of students choicing-in has also slightly declined.

If we turn this down, then all eyes go toward LAW and Page Hilltop (Elementary in Ayer), and the towns would start their own projects to renovate them and the high school will continue on the trend of more choicing-out," said McNiff.

"People whose confidence was going up will begin losing their confidence and people will not want to move here. This is a critical decision for the benefit of the kids and the town, and I think if we don't vote for this, we will be going in the wrong direction."

"Then we would have three buildings in limbo," Finance Committee Chair Frank Kolarik added.

"And if the primary schools aren't cutting it in terms of going with the 21st century, that is a much smaller concern than turning out high-school graduates who can't be competitive in the marketplace," Steinberg said.

Mock said based on a recent assessment of the building, the district believes that LAW can survive another 10 to 15 years without a major renovation.

The payments for the (middle and high) schools at the 10- to 15-year mark begin to level off. That is the point at which we should be looking to do something major for LAW," said McNiff.

The educational benefits

Swanton said he does not see any downside from an educational standpoint for the current high-school project proposal.

Since I am new, I haven't seen the previous proposals, but as a parent, child of two educators, and an educator myself, I see this proposal favorably," Steinberg added.

"Without that new building, (the school district's) chances for success to move forward with a good educational programs are significantly diminished," weighed-in Kolarik. "To try to have an advanced program in the current building would be difficult."

"The building is no longer appropriate to deliver the education program for students in the coming years," concurred Swanton. "And the plan (the district) put together for the coming years is much more optimal for the educational process than what we have today."

Fifty years ago, students were competing with other students in the general area or maybe in southern states, depending on the particular profession you were going into. Today's high school graduates are competing globally," he added.

"I think we all agree the educational piece is a win-win all around," Steinberg concluded.

Concern about LAW

Finance Committee member Bob Schuler said his concern was that the Shirley School Committee had contracted an engineering study of LAW in 2005, and "it was estimated that LAW was not in very good condition, and now I am hearing it has 10 to 15 years left.

"I think it is based on a small amount of assessment and I think that it's optimistic to think that anyone is going to want to teach there," he said.

The recent feasibility study for the middle-high school concept that would have closed LAW, said Mock, indicated that for 860 students, the cost would have been at least $72 million, plus $3 million to convert the middle school to an elementary school.

The impact on this community would have been more than double," he said. "I'm not sure as a taxpayer and as an educator I could have supported that option. It would hamstring the town in a way that nothing else could be done."

A collaborative effort

These are the intangibles that got us into trouble in the first place -- the perception that the towns were not supporting the schools, especially Shirley, and that Shirley would go down the tubes because we couldn't afford our schools to begin with," said Kolarik.

"If this doesn't pass, we will be back to where you started: people leaving the school district. Now we have one problem solved: We have a middle school everyone is happy with. To go back to the other, we put everything on hold for another 2 to 5 years. To me, I don't think we can afford not to do it."

I can't see anything better that we could give the kids of this town for a better education at the high school," said McNiff. "Just keeping the momentum of the confidence in the district, that just rolls into the town. There is no way I cannot vote positively on this. This is a stepping stone and the towns must go forward."

Kolarik said Ayer's support in voting to help pay off the debt on the now-shared middle school indicates mutual respect and the willingness of the towns to work together.

I wish the (Shirley) selectmen would do that as well, and think they should take a vote to support this before the (Nov. 17) vote. That has been the weak link -- the perception that the town leaders have not been joining together to support the solutions. But I am for it," he concluded.

I fully support this program now, and I think it is the way to go," said Swanton. "I really think now is the time, and waiting will cost us significantly more money in terms of the construction costs, interest rates and labor rates."

This is a no-brainer," added McNiff.

After the 4-1 vote in favor of the project, with Schuler the lone dissenter, the committee agreed to draft a letter of support for the project.