By Katina Caraganis
SHIRLEY — With the future of the Lura A. White School in limbo, parents and school officials say closing the facility is the best thing possible to continue meeting the educational needs of its students.
Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee member Bob Prescott said the proposal for the schools in the newly formed district would be to renovate or build an addition to the current high school, then move all middle-school students to that building, move the elementary- school students from Shirley to the current middle-school building and close Lura White.
“We have a plan and we’re following that right now. My personal feeling is I hope we stick to it,” said Prescott. “The plan is to complete the feasibility study on the high school and once completed, something will have to be done there.”
Once the study is completed, both Shirley and Ayer must approve the project as spelled out in the study.
“I’ve heard all kinds of moaning and groaning about closing Lura White, which blows me away. There is value to that building. It could be used in a multitude of ways,” Prescott said. “Instead of what tends to happen where we keep every building in town, I think it should be offered up for sale and let someone do something with it.”
Prescott, who says Lura White will close within three to five years, called selling the building a win-win for the town. “It will increase revenue and they would collect money for selling it. That building sits on 17 or 18 acres. It’s old and needs to be upgraded.”
Lura White Principal Pat Fitzgerald said officials have been doing the bare minimum to keep the school functioning and safe for students and staff every day.
The original school building was built in 1936, she said. An addition was built in the late 1950s, and a second addition came in the 1970s.
“We maintain it constantly. I think we’re talking about a lot of drafty windows and doors that don’t shut very well. The bones of the building, the electrical, plumbing and heating are very temperamental,” said Fitzgerald. “The custodial staff does a great job maintaining everything.”
She said keeping the building in working order is a daily struggle.
“Like any old building, it requires constant attention to function. Our goal is to keep the kids safe and comfortable,” she said.
Fitzgerald says she doesn’t know when everything will be settled, but in the meantime she and her staff — with help from parents — “are making due with what we have.”
She said parents and volunteers make repairs in the school and help raise money through fundraisers to replace antiquated playground equipment.
Prescott said when all middle-school students were moved from Ayer to Shirley last fall, it strengthened the educational curriculum at the school. He said programs were added, like foreign language and unified arts, that may have been unavailable if the schools had remained separate for another year.
Dave Berry, Shirley’s chief administrative officer, said he has not seen any formal recommendation on what will happen to the school but said it will likely become one of the town’s surplus buildings.
“One of the major goals I am going to be involved in is a detailed list of a surplus of town-owned buildings. We want to have a plan that would look at all the buildings,” he said. “What they are, how big they are, do we have a need for them?”
He said the town currently owns the old town hall and the old Hazen Memorial Library, but no other buildings that are not being used.
Prescott said the timeline for the building project is as follows:
March 2012: Projected Massachusetts School Building Authority board approval to move to design schematic.
May 2012: Completion of feasibility study, including design and program.
July 2012: Project scope and budget conference as well as execution of scope and agreement.
September 2012: Projected MSBA board approval.
November 2012: Projected town vote.
Former Ayer School Committee member Cheryl Simmons served on the regional planning board that explored regionalization.
“This will provide a better learning environment than they would have gotten before,” she said Thursday. “We need to provide these kids with a better science curriculum and technology curriculum. All kids in both towns deserve the best possible education. This plan will give that to them.”
Simmons, who has three children ages 9, 11 and 12, said the current high-school building and the middle-high school complex in Ayer are two miles apart, and it’s worth the extra travel time for kids.
“I live within walking distance from the high school, where my kids would normally have gone to middle school there,” she said. “That middle-school building in Shirley is gorgeous. They’re getting more there than they would have otherwise. I think everyone has seen the potential for kids in a new building.”
Ann Kahn, chairman of the Shirley PTO, said closing Lura White has been the path the district was going to take since day one, and believes it is the best option.
“In the community, we have to move forward. It’s a step forward in the right direction. With this, classes will be offered that were never an option before. We have to create a global child. In order to compete in today’s world, they need the skills to survive,” she said. “People who may have problems with the plan didn’t take the time to educate themselves. There have been plenty of public forums for people to ask questions.”