SHIRLEY -- In 2009, the visiting New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accreditation organization for public schools, commended Ayer Middle High School's staff and curriculum, but had strong recommendations regarding the need for facility improvements and renovation.
The condition of the 50-year-old high-school building, said the visiting team, "is a hindrance to the delivery of educational programs," and could, in the near future, cause the school to lose its accreditation.
The Ayer-Shirley Regional School District School Committee promptly went to work to find a solution to the building problem. The committee formed a building committee that worked closely with the Massachusetts State Building Authority to develop a cost-effective plan that would attract students and support the school district and its communities for the next 50 years.
The building committee and MSBA approved a plan to renovate the high school only, leaving middle-school students in the more modern middle school building in Shirley. Ayer Middle School students had already joined their Shirley counterparts there two years ago, in anticipation of the Ayer building renovation.
The MSBA approved the current plan and agreed to pay 70 percent of the reimbursable costs (or about 66 percent of the total cost) of the high-school building renovation, leaving roughly 23 percent to be paid by Ayer, and 12 percent by Shirley.
In a recent meeting with ASRSD Superintendent Carl Mock, he said that he could not imagine a more cost effective way to fix the problems with the aging building. According to Mock, the cost to Shirley to retrofit the current middle-school building for Shirley's elementary-school students and to renovate the entire middle and high-school building would have been 125 percent more than the current plan over the first 13 years of debt service, and nearly double the cost over the entire life of the debt.
The tax impact
Based upon a conservatively high estimate of a 4.5 percent interest rate, a 20-year bond, fiscal 2013 data, and the current 60/40 split of Ayer and Shirley students, the cost of the Ayer-Shirley Regional High School renovation for the taxpayers of Shirley would be about 12 cents for every dollar of the $56.5 million renovation, Mock said.
For the first three years, Shirley would pay a minimal amount, if at all, due to the recently approved debt-sharing agreement with Ayer to pay an additional amount for the high-school renovation until its share of the remaining debt on the middle-school building is paid off.
In the first two years there would be a relatively small amount of interest for Shirley that should be more than offset by the adjustment Ayer will pay on the middle school piece. Shirley may actually accumulate in the stabilization fund the difference offset by Ayer's helping pay off the debt on the middle-school building.
"For the first 10 years of the debt service, it appears that the impact on the tax rate in Shirley is about $.76 per $1,000 of valuation, according to the Shirley assessor's office and finance committee. And for the last 10 years, based on current data, the impact is about $1.04, but that increase in the tax rate at that time will be more than offset by the fact that the middle school will have been paid off. Over the course of the 20 years, the average impact on the Shirley tax rate is about $.90 per $1,000 valuation."
Therefore, said Mock, the best way for Shirley taxpayers to calculate the likely average annual tax impact of the high-school renovation on their individual taxes would be to look at the valuation of their property on their tax bills, divide that amount by 1,000, and then multiply by $.90. To get the average payment per month, divide that number by 12.
Beginning in fiscal year 2016, the cost to a Shirley taxpayer with a home valued at $262,000, for example, would be about $19.65 per month. A homeowner with a home valued at $150,000 would pay an average of $11.25 per month until the debt is paid off.
The actual length of the bond will be determined in consultation with the School Committee's financial advisor, bond counsel, and the two towns' finance committees. "Given the other things the towns want to do, such as renovating the elementary schools at some point in the future, they may not want to go longer than (20 years)," Mock explained.
The middle and elementary schools
When asked what he would say to those who insist that relocating or renovating the elementary-school building should have been a part of the high-school renovation plan, Mock responded, "Do you really want to do a LAW project as part of this? If so, Shirley's cost for the building projects would be more than 125 percent greater over the first 13 years of debt and just about double over the full duration of the debt. Furthermore, we would have had a project that was not nearly as good educationally."
"The middle school-high school (renovation) would have been for $72 million plus $3 million to retrofit the middle school, and you would not have had the adjustment on the middle school debt -- you would still have the full effect of that debt as well. "
The middle-school debt in Shirley will be paid off in fiscal 2027, and Mock believes that will provide an opportunity for both communities to consider significant projects to upgrade their elementary schools.
"When you look at the Ayer debt schedule, you see almost the exact same thing -- the town debt leveling off in fiscal 2027. Once this project is done, people in both towns should start planning for and thinking about 10 or 15 years from now, which appears to be a good time to perhaps take on the next project. The towns and school district should start planning accordingly," Mock suggested.
What a "no" vote means
"This is a good investment. The Building Committee agreed that it doesn't make sense to spend $30 to $35 million just to bring the (high school) building up to code," said Mock. "Such a plan wouldn't have adequately addressed current and future program concerns, the need for improved technology, and the rest of the education piece."
"If we vote no and turn down the high reimbursement from the state, we go to the end of the queue for projects, which means that we may never get that high a reimbursement rate again," said ASRSD School Committee Chairwoman Joyce Reischutz, who explained that the school district would lose the 6 percent reimbursement available to new regions, and the two percent reimbursement for being a "green" building.
"We literally cannot afford to wait" to fix the building, she said.
The votes on the Ayer-Shirley Regional High School project take place at the polls on Saturday, Nov. 17, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Correction: In an article published two weeks ago, a reporter's error stated the cost of the building renovation for both Ayer and Shirley as the cost to Shirley alone. The actual cost of the high school building renovation to Shirley, after taking into account the amount of debt sharing on the middle school building by Ayer, is close to 10 percent.