AYER/SHIRLEY - Ayer and Shirley voters overwhelmingly approved a pair of ballots on Saturday that green-lights a $56.6 million renovation and addition for Ayer-Shirley Regional High School.
For the project to proceed, each town needed to approve separate debt exclusion questions (Question 1 in each town). Also, a blended two-town 'yes' vote was needed on a second ballot on the merits of the project itself (Question 2 in each town).
Those approvals came by comfortable margins - Ayer (10-to-1) and Shirley (2-to-1) approved of Question 1. And 78 percent of the blended Ayer and Shirley vote approved of the school project (2,053 of 2,633 voters casting ballots between Ayer and Shirley).
The approval authorizes the Ayer Shirley Regional School District to borrow up to $56.6 million for the high school overhaul. Of that sum, the Massachusetts School Building Authority will reimburse 70 percent ($37 million) of the project costs.
The towns will split the $19 million local share, funded by a debt exclusion measure - a specific type of Proposition 2 ½ override - that temporarily raises taxes until the debt is paid.
The Ayer tallies came in first and reflected a clear voter mandate. School supporters then shuttled to Shirley Town Offices where the paper ballots were hand counted. Hoots and hollers of glee erupted when the Shirley figures were announced, erasing any doubt over community consensus for the project.
"I am more than excited," said School Committee Chair Joyce Reischutz. "This has been a solid project that many, many people worked on with a lot of diligence, a lot of good faith, and a lot of work. This is the result - the citizens showed how important education is."
She theorized that the larger 'no' sentiment reflected in Shirley "maybe because it's a new region - many didn't understand that that building is the Ayer Shirley High School. I think that was part of the misperception.
"Having been on the streets all day long, I had a really good feeling about it," said Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee member Pat Kelly. "The smiles and the waves were always more visible than the thumbs-down or the turned-away glances. You just try to interpret the feeling, and the feeling was good all day but until you get the vote, you're never quite sure."
"I tried to explain it from a micro- and a macro- level. I could always understand on a micro level that it could be difficult for some people," said Kelly. "But in the end and in the long run, it ends up saving us all as individual taxpayers if we can turn this thing around and broaden our tax base - we're going to be better off.
Now, its full steam ahead.
"We get the contracts done with the project manager SMMA and the construction company immediately on Monday morning. We [the school committee] meet on Tuesday to sign the contracts," said Kelly. "Our building committee will call a meeting immediately after Thanksgiving. We'll start to prepare the south wing for the kids to go in there, and start to demolish the Washington Street wing in February."
School District Superintendent Carl Mock was "very happy and extremely grateful to the voters of both communities. There were big margins of victory and I hope that indicates that people had confidence in the project."
"I think it's an enormously positive sign for the future of the region," said Mock. "It is huge, it is huge. And we have other issues that we have to deal with but we had to make sure we got one under our belt and get ready to move onto others in the future."
"But like I said, this was enormous," said Mock. "If this hadn't passed, it would have delayed everything else that needs to be done in the district. I think the voters realized - I hope they realized - that it is a good, solid project at an affordable price."
In Ayer, parents and children held signs outside the Ayer Town Hall polling location, on the Ayer rotary, and at other strategic points in town.
Carrying his 5-year old daughter Olivia, Brad Benyo was happy to report that he voted for the project.
"We need the renovations, and having a new science and technology wing is very important for the education of our children," said Benyo. "And it will increase our property values, too.
Maria Holland also cast 'yes' ballot votes "because the children's education is important and should be important to all of us. I don't have small children but I hope it passes.
Flashing thumbs-up, former Page Hilltop Elementary School Principal Paul Farley was an enthusiastic supporter of the project. "It's important to the town and the children of the town. Being a former teacher, I'm for it. And as for the logistics of it, if we don't do it now, that project would cost us considerably more later."
In Shirley, passing motorists waved, smiled and gave 'thumbs up' gestures to supporters outside the Town Office polling location.
Cynthia Stone is a 1989 Ayer High School graduate and parent of two school-aged children. She said the high school needed work when she attended the school. "I'd hate for the school to lose accreditation because of the building."
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges gave the school high marks for its programs and teaching practices, but labeled the condition of the 50-year old building an impediment to learning. To keep its accreditation, repairs were needed within a given time frame.
Peter Gubellini teaches history, law, psychology and sociology at the high school. "I think the kids want this," he said. Even those who won't be there when it's finished in 2015.
Craig and Denise Braukmiller have lived in town for 11 years and have an 8-year-old daughter, Kate, who attends Lura A. White Elementary School. "I want to support the system in any way I can," said Craig Braukmiller. "The schools need all the help they can get.
But some opposed the project. A passing older woman said only, "I'd like to say yes, but I can't afford it."
"That's my private business," said another passerby. An older couple said they'd "rather not say" before hurrying to their car.
Frank Esielionis declined to say how he voted but said he wasn't satisfied with the proposed project. "Buildings don't teach kids, teachers do We need a more comprehensive plan."
A quarter of Ayer's 4,972 registered voters cast ballots. Ayer passed the debt exclusion question with 86 percent of the votes cast (1,072 yes, 164 no, and 11 blanks). Eighty nine percent of Ayer voters approved of the project itself (1,117 yes, 132 no and 1 blank).
A third of Shirley's 4,118 registered voters cast ballots. On 68 percent votes totals each, Shirley passed both the debt exclusion question (937 yes, 437 no, and 7 blanks) and the project itself (936 yes, 438 no and 8 blanks).
Ayer Shirley High School Principal Brian Haas was thrilled with the election outcome on Saturday. "Probably goes without saying, but this was a vital step in the process," said Haas. "I am grateful the the people in both towns that saw this project for what it us - a new high school."
"I am excited to see the beginning of the physical construction," said Haas. "I am relieved that the building project has passed, so we will be able to continue to provide a solid curriculum."
"Once the new building is opened, curriculum will not be limited by space," said Haas. "I expect us to continue to refine our curriculum and use our physical space as an advantage to provide the best quality education that we can to our students. Thank you to all the voters for supporting the high school building project.
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