SHIRLEY -- The Finance Committee hosted a full-house crowd Tuesday night to hear yet another presentation of the Ayer Shirley Regional School District's $7.1 million athletic fields project plan, in the works for nearly two years.
This time, though, an alternative, purportedly more cost-effective plan was spotlighted as well.
The pricier plan has been shopped around since summer, with presentations in both towns featuring student athletes who described problems on the fields due to topographic anomalies, obstacles and other issues. They also talked about injuries caused by those conditions. Their coaches backed them up.
A final session at the high school last week included a tour of the outdoor athletic facilities, which nobody disputes need hefty upgrades, revamps and reconfiguration to improve safety and accessibility.
Committee Chairman John O'Keefe said he had asked for spread sheet data on the injuries, citing lack of that data as a key reason for opposing the project as presented. He also objected to the cost of a concession stand, but planners explained the building would also house restrooms and a ticket booth.
Instead of data on the injuries, the subcommittee presented "anecdotal evidence," O'Keefe said.
That evidence consisted of first-hand accounts from coaches, athletic directors and students.
Member Holly Haase took issue with the notion that the cost wouldn't burden taxpayers too much.
Zeroing in on the tax uptick (estimated at $35 per year on an average bill) generated by the debt exclusion voters will be asked to accept to pay for the fields project, Haase said that although some proponents characterized it as too little to quibble over, it would matter a lot to some town taxpayers.
"We're fighting about $35 a year. That seems ridiculous to me," said Michelle Granger, an Ayer representative on the school board.
Haase disagreed. "As a former tax collector, I know people do care" about what might seem to be a small increase," she said. "Don't trivialize that $35."
Granger apologized if her comment was taken that way.
In any case, it's not up to committee or school board to resolve this issue, Haase and others said. Voters will decide.
Town Clerk Bill Oelfke explained how it will work at the Oct. 6 election.
Voters will pick up two separate ballots, one of which -- a district-wide referendum -- seeks authorization for the school district to borrow $7.1 million for the project. Results will be tallied together.
The other ballot, separate in each member town, asks voters to approve a debt exclusion under the provisions of Proposition 2.5
O'Keefe said the committee recommends that Shirley voters say no on the district-wide ballot.
He also said the School Committee has committed to take another track if the debt exclusion question fails in either town and won't move ahead with the full-out project even if the district-wide vote is yes.
At a presentation in Shirley this summer, Selectman Debra Flagg asked if there was a Plan B, in case voters said no. One of the presenters told her there is and that absent the full steam ahead master plan, field upgrades would be tackled by priority, with the running track, which is in the worst shape, fixed first. The district can budget for that without asking voters for more money, he said.
Jim Quinty, one of Shirley's three representatives on the six-member ASRSD School Committee and the only one to vote against the fields project as proposed, laid out an alternative plan that he said would cost less. When he suggested it earlier to the school board, it was rejected.
Quinty's plan centers on relocating baseball and softball fields off campus, among other changes.
FinCom, which is recommending that Shirley voters say no to the $7.1 version, favors Quinty's plan, which they posit would cut project expenses by about half, coming it at less than $4 million. No study has been done to support that assumption, however.
Project proponents say its too late to consider Quinty's plan, which lacks a professional architectural eye and does not take into account that the baseball and softball teams would have no place else to go.
Quinty suggests moving off campus to playing fields in Ayer and Shirley, but there's no guarantee that would work and rec officials in the two towns say it would not, citing current field use and maintenance costs, among other issues, such as transportation.
Dan Gleason and Pat Kelly, Ayer representatives on the school board, pointed out that the planning effort has cost the volunteer Fields Committee ( a combined subgroup of RSC members and at-large members from both towns) hundreds of hours and the district has spent over $60,000 on it. The money paid for an architect's professional services. The architect, from the same firm that designed the high school, specializes in landscaping projects.
Like the old building, the athletic fields are over 50 years old and its time to bring them up to par with the gleaming high school and its state-of-the art upgrades, ASRSD Superintendent Mary Malone said.