AYER — When the Ayer-Shirley Regionalization Planning Board held its final public forum on Feb. 23 at Ayer Middle High School, a tour of the facility was a featured part of the program. The 50-year old building would be a shared regional facility if the school district merger passes, with an envisioned $36 million renovation/addition project to follow. The tour spotlighted middle-school sections and classrooms.
While it’s a key element in the scenario planners have presented in both towns over the last couple of months, the building project is not part of the proposed Ayer-Shirley regionalization agreement voters will be asked to consider at special town meetings in both towns on Saturday, March 6, at 10 a.m.
Tuesday night, smiling faces and school spirit exhibited by tour guides Sarah Wallace and Melissa Belanger enlivened one tour group’s experience. Two among several student volunteers who conducted tours, the eighth-graders know the building well, despite a layout that includes several hallway turns and a couple of short stair climbs. They attended school there since fifth grade, they said, but the set-up is six to 12 now. A couple of years ago, the fifth grade moved across the parking lot to Page Hilltop Elementary School as part of a middle-school reorganization plan.
Spotlighted areas were clean, with shining tile floors, but lockers lining the hallways were scarred and dented. Classrooms were smallish and spare, with a mix of old but serviceable furniture and no modern equipment to speak of. Although a science room had a few microscopes stored on a counter, folding tables served as work areas. Presumably, that will all change in a merged middle-school plan that’s peripheral but integral to the regionalization proposal.
In that vision, newer furniture and technology and lab equipment from Shirley’s spacious, modern, five-year-old middle school would be transported to the shared regional facility in Ayer when the former Shirley Middle School is retro-fitted as an elementary school.
But some Shirley parents are questioning that plan.
Shirley resident Steve Belanger said it’s not a good idea to mix sixth-graders with 18-year old high-school seniors in a building where they share a gym, cafeteria and library. The gym has a folding wall to divide the space, as does the cafeteria, but not the library.
When teenagers are in there, younger students tend to steer clear, Sarah and Melissa said. It was a light comment, and most parents would recognize it as a typical snapshot of social structures students create for themselves. But it’s also food for thought.
But Steve Belanger, an Ayer High graduate whose children attend public schools in both towns, said he sees other problems with school shifts regional planners have mapped out.
“Why not build a new elementary school in Shirley instead of the building project in Ayer?” he suggested. “The more we expand here,” the less recreational outdoor space there will be, he said, noting that more students and staff require more parking space. Yet the Shirley Middle School offers ample interior space and is surrounded by playing fields, with plenty of room to add a wing to the building.
Middle-school students who attend the Ayer facility over the next four years probably won’t see the benefits of the building project, but they will have to live with the upheaval, he predicted. “It doesn’t seem logical,” he said. “I think this is being overlooked.”
Planning Board Chairman Mike Swanton said the plan they came up with targets the highest reimbursement rates the state School Building Authority offers. The formula favors larger facilities, he said.
Although Belanger didn’t mention it, there’s another potential downside to the middle-school move. The new building was intentionally sited across from the municipal complex and the library, which offers a variety of programs for students in that age group after school. That advantage will be lost if the middle school moves to Ayer.
Ayer resident and former selectman Frank Maxant said he’s against regionalization based on the numbers, including annual assessments he said will up taxes.
But another town resident said those arguments made no sense to her. As the parent of three children, Kerri Bremer, an Acton schoolteacher, said she’s happy with Page Hilltop for its small town feel, which will still be there in a region. She also looks forward to “extras,” such as added academic programs and extracurricular activities the district doesn’t have now.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but these kids are our future,” she said. “I’m proud to be from Ayer and would be proud to say my kids are part of an Ayer-Shirley school district,” she said. “This comes from the heart.”