SHIRLEY -- With the Ayer-Shirley School District building project elections coming up on Saturday, Nov. 17, the first of two final public forums was held at the middle school in Shirley Tuesday night. The second was held Wednesday at the high school in Ayer.

The project was showcased, as it has been before, with sketches, graphs and a detailed handout. The presentations were shorter this time, though, and more to the point.

Several points, actually, including why the project is needed; whether the high school-only option on the table now was the right way to go versus an earlier middle- and high-school scheme and/or any other, possibly better alternatives; whether this is the right time to move forward with the proposed renovation and addition to upgrade and update the 50-year-old high-school building; and if $56.6 million is the right price.

Speakers in turn explained why the answer to each of those questions was yes.

People who attended past public forums have heard most of this information before, about the educational benefits of a high-tech ready high school with flexible, common areas and well-equipped science labs versus one that has shabby, outdated labs, nine levels to navigate through the building and malfunctioning HVAC system. Among many other ills that the makeover will correct, including site problems and building access issues related to traffic, safety and security.

The full-blown, top-to-bottom renovation will fix all that and more.


And a new academic wing will replace two old ones whose haphazard placement and crumbling infrastructure make them not worth saving, in the opinion of SMMA architects who conducted the feasibility study and reported back not only to the Building Committee but also to MSBA, the state agency that has agreed to cover $37 million of the total cost.

The way the setup works, in accordance with state law for regional school capital projects, the School Committee asks for authorization to borrow the entire amount but the total local tab only comes to about $19 million, School Committee Vice Chairman Pat Kelly said, and that "local share" is split between the two member towns.

Shirley's share comes to about $7 million.

Over a 20-year loan period at a "conservative" interest rate of 4.5 percent, the average taxpayer owning an average-priced home in each town can expect the temporary tax hike from the debt exclusions to range from $181 a year in Ayer to $240 a year in Shirley, according to accountants, treasurers and Finance Committees in both towns.

Ayer and Shirley voters previously agreed to pay up to $750,000 for the feasibility study, the cost of which gets rolled into the total price tag for the project, if it passes in the regional vote and if voters in Ayer and Shirley, respectively, pass debt exclusions to cover each town's share.

Although the debt exclusion elections are separate and distinct to each town, the district-wide, or regional vote is a different animal, with the votes from both towns counted together and a simple majority outcome.

Still, Kelly stressed that only a favorable vote on all three ballots gives the project a green light, and the regional ballot language is worded that way. "There's no way" the towns could come up with the money otherwise, he said.

And there is no way except this project to move out of the choice-out doldrums and into the smooth sailing future in which the district keeps the money it now pays out to other public school districts -- about $2 million a year -- when in-town kids opt to go elsewhere, which happens in droves at the high school level, Kelly said.

That money would be pumped into programs and some of it could be used to address physical issues at the district's elementary schools, Lura A. White in Shirley and Page Hilltop in Ayer, he said. Without it, money that might otherwise be used to improve the school system will go into fixing the high-school building instead. 

Supporters of the project, including the two-town grassroots citizens group BFSA -- "Building the Future for Shirley and Ayer" -- will be out and about on Saturday while the polls are open in both towns, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

After the forum, members said they could use some help, maybe a few friendly faces to hold signs. Anyone interested in joining their parade for the schools can sign on via the group's website,