Middle-school concerns surface at district forum

AYER — Shirley parents have expressed concerns about their sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade children sharing a school building and riding the same buses as teenage high- school students, which is the plan if the Ayer and Shirley schools regionalize.

Voters will be asked to consider a regional agreement that would merge the two school districts at Special Town meetings in both towns on Saturday, March 6.

At a final regionalization forum in Ayer Tuesday night, some Shirley parents said they’re leery of having younger kids mingle with older students if the current Ayer Middle High School becomes a shared facility for grades six through 12 in both towns.

Interim Superintendent George Frost said there’s little if any contact between the two groups during the school day, with classrooms in separate areas of the building. The kids might pass in the hallways, but that’s about it, he said. Meals are at different times, too.

Although high-school and middle-school students share the gym, cafeteria and library, scheduling steers them in different directions. They ride the same buses, but Assistant Principal Rich McGrath said there have been few if any incidents reported. A school bus driver said it’s no problem. She assigns seats so they don’t sit together, she said, but there’s a natural inclination among teens not to mix with younger kids anyway.

Shirley high-school students have attended school in Ayer for many years under a tuition agreement with the other town. They’ve also had the option of attending Lunenburg High under a parallel agreement that would be phased out if the regionalization plan passes.

But Shirley middle-school students now attend school in a modern building the town constructed just five years ago. If all goes according to the plan the regional board has laid out, the Shirley Middle School as an entity would be no more, and the Lura A. White Elementary School buildings would be shuttered. Planners have said those old structures need costly repairs and upgrades they’d rather avoid. In the envisioned Ayer-Shirley region, the middle-school building would be retrofitted as an elementary school.

At a final regionalization forum Tuesday night in Ayer, Shirley resident Jim Quinty asked if there’s flexibility in that part of the plan and whether a new regional school board could change it.

While recognizing the “desperate” financial straits his town and its schools are in, Quinty proposed an alternative plan for the merged middle school if regionalization passes. “What we have to bring to the table is a brand new building” constructed as a middle school, with labs and a large, modern gymnasium, he said. “If we vote yes” and a new regional school board forms, can they rework the proposal to shift the Shirley schools? he asked.

In elementary school, teachers are more critical than facilities, he said, and if that’s the case, Shirley’s Lura White school is fine for now. Then, instead of revamping the middle school, he suggested housing a merged Ayer-Shirley middle school there. In that scenario, the priciest part of a renovation/addition project proposed for Ayer’s Middle High School could be put off. It wouldn’t be necessary to add a wing to the building if it was used solely as a high school, he pointed out.

If Shirley kids can go to Ayer, then the opposite set-up is just as workable, in his view. “I think we can work together,” he said. “But can we change the plan?”

Planning Board Chairman Mike Swanton answered Quinty’s question. “My guess is that would be up to the permanent regional school committee,” he said. That body would be elected in July if the region is formed next month, with an interim board seated in the meantime. “We’ve proposed a scenario,” Swanton said. “Could it change? Certainly,” he said. “They could take a look at the idea.”