AYER/SHIRLEY -- The Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Building Committee at its recent meeting took a critical, cost-conscious look at the latest iteration of architectural designs that will transform the 50-year-old high school on Washington Street into a modern facility, inside and out.

They discussed windows, placement of "pilasters," brick versus steel in the façade, even the school insignia shown as a "seal" on the back of the building.

But one issue that came up wasn't on the drawings: whether the final plans should include refurbished tennis courts.

A complete makeover, from HVAC systems and utility upgrades to reconfigured "campus" traffic patterns, the $56 million high school building project includes extensive renovation of the interior layout based on student and staff needs now and in the future, incorporating technological infrastructure for 21st-century educational programs.

The exterior is slated for a re-do as well, with a new academic wing to replace an existing wing, façade changes, strategically placed new windows and other upgrades, including reorientation of the front door and parking lot.

When the dust settles, the new and improved high school should present a pleasing view from its hilltop perch, with landscape changes and a "campus" setting that includes Page Hilltop Elementary School buildings that are also on the site but not part of the project.


For example, multiple exits and entrances off Washington Street will be replaced by one entrance and one exit. Not only more user-friendly, the new setup, with unobstructed sight lines, will be safer, too.

The vision gets closer to reality with each design iteration, but it's still a work in progress.

Last week, the committee delved into details and offered input to SMMA architects, who can make changes before submitting the design plan to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for approval.

The state agency gets a say at every stage of the project because it has a vested interest, having committed to providing the district with 70 percent reimbursement for work it has agreed to cover. Minus the hefty state reimbursement, the two member towns will split the remaining cost of the project per a formula spelled out in the regional agreement.

MSBA coverage criteria rule out some items, however. For example, site work integral to the overall plan, which the district must absorb as a nonreimbursable project cost. Improvements to athletic fields aren't covered, either, but the plan doesn't include them.

The tennis court cost -- about $150,000 -- is an exception. MSBA agreed to include it because the courts will be used as a staging area during construction and destroyed in the process, as Owners Project Manager Trip Elmore, of Dore and Whittier, explained.

Building Committee Chairman Murray Clark, an Ayer resident, noted that the town has no other tennis courts and these are of no use to anyone as they are. The courts are in "bad condition" now, he said, and will be worse after heavy equipment takes its toll.

Superintendent Carl Mock said staff members have questioned why money is being slated to fix the tennis courts when the high school has no team and they are not used.

If that item were cut, it would reduce the project cost, Mock said, but staff he talked to thought the money might be better spent fixing up the high school ropes course. Citing a rough estimate for the latter, he said the cost would likely be "about a third" lower.

School Committee Chairwoman Joyce Reischutz commented that it would be a "nice" to offer a perk like the tennis courts to the community. "I wouldn't take it out," she said.

Clearly, she meant the district-wide community, which could share the courts with the school. But someone else at the table pointed out that of the two towns in that community, one would stand to benefit more in this instance, which might not sit well with taxpayers in the other member town.

High School Principal Brian Haas strongly favored switching the courts for the ropes.

According to Haas, the ropes course is popular with students, and physical education teachers would rather have it fixed than the tennis courts. "The ice storm wrecked it," he said. Besides, with just three existing courts, it would take two more to support a high school tennis program, he said.

Mock asked if the money could be reallocated.

Elmore said even if MSBA agreed to re-direct money targeted for the tennis courts, they would still need to be fixed when the project is done. "You'd have to do something ..." he said. Reclaiming that area, for example. Either way, there would be associated costs.

The group agreed to sort out the questions, get some figures and discuss the matter again at the next meeting in two weeks.