This is the first in a three-part series
By M.E. Jones
AYER/SHIRLEY — Voters in Ayer and Shirley made history when they agreed to merge the two public school systems at super Town Meetings last March, creating the first new regional school district in the state in recent memory.
With the region set to launch July 1, voters will be asked at a special, two-town special election on Saturday, May 21, to approve a $750,000 feasibility study for a proposed school building project.
The election is a re-run and the second time around for the ballot question, which failed in February. According to the Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee, it had to be asked again because it’s central to long range plans for the region; and if the price tag seems hefty, that’s because the study covers a lot of ground.
Besides determining project feasibility, the study will set parameters and lay the groundwork for the proposed renovation to the Ayer-Shirley Regional High School, possibly with a new wing. It will include architectural drawings, tests and cost estimates.
Ayer and Shirley have each considered school regionalization before.
One memorable attempt — a proposed Shirley and Lunenburg match-up a couple of decades ago — made it to a super Town Meeting. Lunenburg said yes. Shirley said no.
There were concerns in both towns about cost and local control. A strong objection in Shirley was that forming educational ties with Lunenburg would mean breaking them with Ayer, whose high school had hosted Shirley students for half a century.
A tuition deal similar to the long-standing arrangement with Ayer came out of regionalization talks with Lunenburg, adding a third high school option for Shirley students. Although the town still didn’t have its own high school, they could now attend Ayer, Lunenburg or Nashoba Tech. in Westford, the multi-community technical high school region the town already belonged to. So if the system wasn’t broken, why fix it?
But the situation changed. When regionalization resurfaced in Shirley a few years ago, even vocal opponents of the earlier try agreed it might be the right time.
Shirley schools needed more money than the town’s stressed-out budget could sustain.
Ayer faced a similar situation, if less drastic.
Three years ago, the Ayer Public School District was in transition, having hired an interim superintendent with business acumen as well as educational credentials and regional school district experience.
With new hires and team-members strategically placed, the administration and School Committee set ambitious goals that included upping test scores, improving student performance and school environment, establishing better business practices and developing a positive working relationship with town officials.
Work in Progress
Part of Ayer’s improvement plan called for upgrading the nearly 50-year old high school building, in part to meet accreditation criteria.
As the high school was adding programs, curriculum enhancements and professional development initiatives were under way district-wide.
Like districts across the state, Ayer and Shirley faced declining enrollment and as costs continued to rise, state aid decreased. Cash-strapped communities such as Shirley, whose services had been sharply cut, were reluctant to give more money to their schools.
Set against the broader backdrop of the foundering economy, regionalization looked enticing at the local level, with cost-sharing, program and revenue enhancement opportunities and the promise of “economies of scale” offering communities more educational value for their money.
When it came to pro versus con, those touted perks helped offset parochial arguments against it. The state, meanwhile, was pushing regionalization of all services and had recently upped its reimbursement percentages for school building projects.