Revisiting a comprehensive, long-range vision that began with the now-completed high school building renovation and addition, the Ayer Shirley Regional School District recently rolled out plans for a major makeover of the school's outdoor athletic facilities.
An architect's cost estimate for the Athletic Fields Complex currently proposed is $6.75 million. Characterizing the latest proposal as an extension of the last one, an item of unfinished business that will polish off the high school building project once and for all, some of its proponents met with a Nashoba Valley Voice reporter to talk about it.
Fields Committee Chairman Murray Clark said he hopes the cost estimate shrinks in final form. "I think that's high," he said.
But it's no wild guess. The architect behind the estimate is Peter Lukacic, of SMMA, the firm that designed the high school, and he specializes in landscape architecture.
In a recent joint interview in ASRSD Superintendent Mary Malone's office, Clark, Fields Committee member and School Committee Chairman Dan Gleason and (by phone) Jonathan Deforge, one of Shirley's three representatives on the six-member school board, sketched the plan they gave to Ayer and Shirley town officials last month. Follow up information sessions are also planned, Gleason said, including presentations to community groups, public hearings and other outreach leading up to Town Meetings in both towns.
But if the current plan was in the works all along, why not pitch it as a package in the first place? Cost, Malone said, noting that it would have added $2.5 million to the school building project. "This finishes the project," she said.
Gleason and Clark, both of whom served on the Building Committee, said athletic fields were discussed at the time but not in this format and that, all things considered, they decided to hold off.
Taxpayers' share of the multi-million dollar high school building project -- offset by state funding -- was split between the two member towns via percentages set forth in the regional agreement, which spells out the merger in detail, from operational rules to each town's financial responsibilities.
At that time, the focus was the building, with an ambitious repair, renovation and replacement plan on the table to re-do the 50-plus-year-old high school from top to bottom, razing old wings to add new ones, with fully equipped science labs and other modern features and fixtures. Given the extent and expense of that project, the sports piece was sidelined, even though the fields were as old and inadequate as the building.
Added costs to upgrade the fields would not have been covered by MSBA, which reimbursed the district for a hefty chunk of the building project. The state building assistance program does not fund sports facilities, Malone said. The full cost of the proposed new sports complex would be borne by taxpayers.
But, she added, its benefits are worth it. A state-of-the-art high school building should have a comparable sports facility, she said, adding to the draw of an up-and-coming regional school system that already boasts a handsome new high school. Anyone in the community who hasn't toured the building should make it a point to do so, she said.
Gleason agreed that the building is a community asset. The number one reason people move to any town or city is the quality of its schools, he said, echoing a claim any local realtor might make.
Malone said the sports complex would add to its value, hopefully retaining students who might otherwise opt to find another school system that offers the sports programs they want. "Our students play more than one sport," she said. "They deserve this."
The Field Committee aims to present the Athletic Field Complex proposal to the member towns -- Ayer and Shirley -- at their annual town meetings, both set for May 14.
Asked how he thought the towns would pay for the project, Gleason said it's up to town officials to determine if and how to present a funding request to voters, most likely via a debt exclusion, a temporary Proposition 2 1/2 tax override. If so, and if both Town Meetings say yes, it would then go to a townwide election ballot in each town, Gleason said. He declined to speculate on how much a temporary tax rider based on the current cost estimate would add to an average tax bill.
The plan adds soccer fields but space limits ruled out other options, such as new structures, he said, although the concession stand can be expanded for bathrooms.
Restrooms in the field area would eliminate the need to open the high school building for weekend or night games, Malone said. As it is now, a custodian must be hired, not only to clean up after the event but also to be in the building throughout the event for security. Given that the only bathroom facilities available now are inside the school, access is a must during those events. "We can't have people just...roaming around the building," she said.
Gleason noted that cost parameters could also hinge on whether any of the proposed upgrades trigger ADA compliance, requiring added features for handicapped access.
So, what is driving this project and why is it being proposed now?
Noting that middle school debt would soon be paid off, Gleason said the main driver was necessity, although he didn't discount the notion that the financial outlook for Ayer and Shirley may be better now than it was several years ago, when both towns bought into the school building project.
Now, it's time to fix the fields, the proponents agreed. Besides safety concerns -- Malone said the district hasn't had a serious injury yet, but conditions court the possibility -- making do has run its course, they said. Nor is it wise to combine field uses for different sports. It's awkward and unsafe, Gleason said, describing problems that routinely come up.
Team sports and field and track events call for different set-ups and in some cases structural changes that can't be switched back and forth easily and safely, he said, describing how one coach throws tarps over equipment in certain areas to prepare them for other uses they were not built for.
In other instances, muddy field areas unsuitable for some sports and degraded track with eroded edges in some sections pose risks for student athletes, as do physical troubles such as surface gaps, ruts, holes and other pitfalls that must constantly be dealt with. And there are no soccer fields. With space constraints always at issue, teams must queue up for time and space, Gleason said.
More than 70 high school students have signed up for soccer and 90 for track, she said.
With no dedicated field, soccer teams use the baseball outfield and it mucks up badly, Gleason said, and the arrangement barely passes muster with MSPA rules, he said.
Safety comes first, Malone concluded, but access issues have become more pressing as the high school population grows -- 407 compared with 307 when the building opened and expectations are that it will continue to grow -- along with the number of students participating in sports.