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On July 1 a new regional school district will open its doors, the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District (ASRSD). A lot of people have volunteered on numerous search and planning committees and an enormous amount of time has been invested to make sure that the ASRSD gets off to a great start. We need one more investment to ensure the district is successful — a financial investment.

The vision of this regional school district has always been to provide the educational programs that our citizens wanted for the children of these two communities. The promise was that the region provided an opportunity to deliver a high-quality education more efficiently. The doors have not even officially opened yet and this has already occurred. The merging of the middle school this year has made it possible to offer programs of study and activities that did not exist in either middle school previously. And it was all done without increasing the budget.

There are two financial investments that the citizens will vote on in the coming weeks; the first is the regional budget assessment and the second is the feasibility study for the middle high school. Both of these investments are critical to the success of the school district and therefore critical to the success of each town.

The Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee (ASRSC) has delivered on the promise to create a district where the educational and extra-curricular activities have been enhanced and the budget for the first year of the region has not been increased over the final year of the two individual districts. The budget that the ASRSC has certified by vote and will be assessing to each town for next year does not increase the amount budgeted by either town for the current fiscal year. This is true despite increased costs in commodities and goods and services the district needs to operate. It is also true while at the same time the program of study has been enhanced and plans are in place for additional improvements for this coming year.

The ASRSC requested and received approval from MSBA to bring the feasibility study vote back before the two towns. The committee did this because the cost of inaction is too devastating to the district and to each community. This year alone over $1.5 million is being sent from Ayer and Shirley to other communities to educate the citizens/students of our towns. This has escalated over the past three years and the trend must be stopped. Of the reasons cited by students and parents for “Choicing out” of our districts, the most common are “opportunities missing from the curriculum” and “poor facilities.” Both need to be addressed and can be addressed with the long overdue renovation to the middle high school facility. The administration and faculty have done everything they can on both fronts but the facility itself is limiting. In the words of NEASC who cited the district for “Lack of Community Support for Facilities”: “The building hinders the delivery of education to the students.” The cost of “School Choice” to the district is not just financial, it is also emotional. Yes there will always be some students who Choice out for various reasons, but what we are experiencing currently is a mass exodus. It is demoralizing to the students, to the faculty, to the volunteers, to the administration and to the citizens to see so many choose to go elsewhere. It then becomes easy for another student to choose to leave and equally as easy for a quality faculty member to choose a district that invests in its programs.

As citizens and parents we want students and their parents to want to attend school here. We want students from surrounding towns to want to “Choice in” to this district. We want what is best for this community and the data is clear that successful towns support their school districts by investing in them. That investment pays off for the towns by attracting new residents and therefore increasing revenue. The data is equally as clear for towns that do not invest in the school system. Residents either Choice out of the district or leave the community altogether, vacancy rates increase and revenue decreases. Business people do not invest in starting or growing businesses in towns where the prospect for success is poor. They move their business to towns that are thriving and they make an investment where they know it will pay off.

So it is time to choose. Investing now in the feasibility study means that we can put together a plan that will clearly show how the middle high school can be improved to be both cost efficient and support a stronger, more rigorous curriculum. Investing now means that we have a chance to build on the excitement created around the new district and assure the students, parents, citizens and faculty that we do support education. In turn they will support the communities by staying and educating their children in this district.

Not investing now means that we will set the course for the next two to three decades for the region and the two towns. The mass exodus will not only continue but it will increase exponentially. Parents and students that place a high value on educational programs will either Choice out or move out. Both options have a negative financial impact on the towns. We do not make this statement lightly, nor do we take any pleasure in saying it. However, we have watched the pattern develop over the past three years and we have spoken to numerous parents and, unfortunately, we can make this assertion with confidence. Parents don’t have the luxury of waiting a few years for things to get better. They want their child’s one educational experience to prepare them for the future. They will not wait — they will leave.

So it is time to choose. Not later, not in three years or five years, but now. We cannot be short sighted at this time. There is too much at stake. It is not just about a school building or a school budget. It is about the heart and life blood of a community. The choice is clear to us; we hope it is to you as well.

PAT KELLY

DAN GLEASON