SHIRLEY -- A memo Finance Committee Chairman John O'Keefe distributed about the coming referendum on the high school fields project contained inaccurate or misleading information, Ayer Shirley School Committee Chairman Jonathan Deforge said in a rebuttal memo.
O'Keefe said his board recommends a no vote on the district-wide ballot set for Oct. 6. It seeks authorization for the district to borrow money for a proposed $7.1 million athletic fields project.
He also said that if it passes and a separate, town-only ballot seeking a debt exclusion (temporary tax override under the provisions of Proposition 2 1/2) fails, the town would still be on the hook for its share (40 percent, per the Regional Agreement) and would have to tap the municipal budget to pay the bill.
Deforge said the School Committee will table the athletic fields project and won't move forward to borrow money unless the debt exclusions pass.
Deforge also took issue with O'Keefe's take on the elementary schools, which indicated plans were in process to renovate or replace the district's two elementary schools, Lura A. White in Shirley and Page Hilltop in Ayer.
O'Keefe said those projects, with estimated costs from $22.5 million to $78.6 million, would be rolled out next spring, further burdening taxpayers.
Deforge said that's not true.
"There are no School Committee-approved plans for major renovation or new construction at either of the elementary schools," Deforge said after O'Keefe's memo made the rounds.
O'Keefe, who spoke to the Voice before a protracted session with selectmen last week in which he paged through his memo, said he is concerned that Shirley taxpayers were not kept in the loop as elementary school plans take shape.
But Deforge said project ideas Keefe cited were concepts the board discussed in terms of proposals it might forward to the state's school building assistance program (MSBA) to hold a place in the queue.
Cost estimates for each option (renovate each elementary school, build two new ones or consolidate, which would call for amending the Regional Agreement) were to inform the public, he said. But any such plan or plans would be presented at public forums and in the end voters would decide.
"In the best-case scenario, approval for this expenditure would be requested in the spring of 2020," Deforge said.
Meantime, a recent professional analysis showed both schools are "serviceable" for now, with no operational safety issues. But "significant changes" would be required to bring the buildings up to code, according to the study, which also said some systems were past their expected lifespan and must be upgraded or replaced.
All things considered, the time frame the School Committee is working with makes it unlikely that the temporary tax uptick (39 cents more per thousand or $113 more per year on the median house value in town, which is $292,655) generated by approving a debt exclusion for the fields project would collide with a later, larger tax hit for an elementary school project.
"Approving the fields project (Oct. 6 ballot and at subsequent Town Meeting) does not mean an elementary school project cannot be started," Deforge said. And if voters reject the fields project, it doesn't mean the ball would pass to the elementary school immediately, he said.
"These projects are on parallel paths" with different timelines, but both are investments in the next generation the future of Ayer and Shirley, he said.