SHIRLEY -- At a lively and sometimes contentious Special Town Meeting on Monday night, 206 registered voters had their say on an matter some would say had already been settled: Whether a proposed $7.1 million athletics fields project slated for Ayer Shirley Regional High School should go forward.
Ayer and Shirley voters approved a referendum on Oct. 6, allowing the regional school district to incur debt for the project. The question was approved by a combined 775-632, though Shirley voters narrowly opposed.
Monday night, the question came up again as the first article on Shirley's three-item warrant, and passed 128-58.
Over the past summer, the project was presented in Ayer and Shirley, respectively, by a nine-member subcommittee consisting of School Committee and at-large members from both towns.
The group was charged with studying the issue and mapping out its course, with input from coaches, student athletes and architects from the same firm that helped structure the high school building project a couple of years ago, transforming an ailing, 50-plus-year old structure into a state-of-the-art facility.
Missing from the high school building project's ambitious to-do list was a makeover for outdated, reportedly inadequate and unsafe outdoor athletic facilities, which needed major improvements.
The selectmen backed the article. The Finance Committee opposed it. Asked why, Finance Committee Chairman John O'Keefe cited insufficient data, particularly about student injuries attributed to field conditions.
Unlike the district's proposal, which took 18 months to hash out with a professional architect, no study was done on Quinty's plan, which the committee previously considered and rejected.
Resident Don Miller, who said he's a senior citizen, lamented annual tax increases he blamed on the regional school system, established in 2011. "I live (with) what I have ... (asking for) this kind of money is ... totally ridiculous," he said. "It won't help us seniors one bit!"
But some younger residents with children had a different view. One woman, who said she's an "elementary school parent," cited broken bleachers and flooded soccer fields. "If you've walked the fields, you see the need," she said. "We must keep investing in our schools to keep the community thriving."
Thanks to a recent $500,000 donation from the Norton Family Foundation and others, the total cost of the project may be about $6.6 million, Town Administrator Mike McGovern said.
A resident asked what happens if costs exceed estimates. School Committee Chairman Jonathan Deforge said the district has been authorized to borrow $7.1 million, no more. "That's the cap," he said.
A similar article appears on the warrant for Ayer's Special Town Meeting, set for Oct. 22. Ayer's article asks voters if they want to approve borrowing by the district, and ties the vote to passage of a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion to pay the town's share.
The School Committee has said it will not move forward with the project until debt exclusion referenda have been held in.
In other Town Meeting business:
* Article Two sought reinstatement of the position of public works director, vacant for some time.
With a stated salary of $96,437.41, the motion on the article asked to appropriate 7/12 of that amount, or $56,255.16. The motion passed by a clear majority, according to Town Moderator Karen Ludington.
* Article Three asked voters to accept provisions of several cited sections in state law that will allow military veterans who enlisted out of town or out of state and moved to Shirley later to apply for tax exemptions sooner than previously. Under current law, the waiting period was five years, Assessor Dorothy Wilbur explained, With the new provisions, that period is one year. The measure passed by a majority vote.
Minutes of the meeting have been posted on-line and may be accessed via a link on the town website, Town Clerk William Oelfke said Tuesday morning. Asked about the turnout, he said it was the highest for an STM in three years.