The architects’ vision of the renovated high school and addition changes all that.

But the story behind the remodel goes beyond fixing the old building’s shortcomings.

Project proponents say it’s also about building a better school system to draw in students, an increasing number of whom are opting out of the district through the state School Choice program to attend charter schools or other public schools.

And some students who attend Nashoba Tech may do so for the wrong reasons, Kelly said. If a vocational education is right for them, that’s good, he said, but not if the choice is made because they want out of their home public school district.

The idea, then, is to stop the outbound spiral and re-direct flow back into the district.

When students choice out, often after sixth grade, downsized numbers in the sending district makes it more difficult to provide programs at the high-school level.

Besides lost state education aid, the district pays out at least $6,000 per pupil to educate hometown students elsewhere. The cost continues until high school graduation.

The premise is that updated facilities could help keep human resources and per-pupil spending in-house.

It’s been said before. Nobody disputes that the district has a choice-out deficit. Administrators say the situation is likely to worsen unless the school system at the secondary level takes steps to show improvement.

But is it affordable?

Shirley Finance Committee Chairman Frank Kolarik said the new cost estimate is too high.

“This estimate is three times the original, when we agreed to regionalize,” he said.

And the town is still stuck with a problem the original plan was supposed to solve.

The middle-high school project was sold as a package with inter-dependent elements essential to the overall plan. It called for closing the aging Lura A. White School and retrofitting the newer middle school as an elementary school.

The new plan jettisons those elements.

Per the regional agreement, each member town pays for its own elementary schools in most cases, meaning Shirley must shoulder the entire cost of renovating Lura A. White, estimated now at $24 million, although it would not be mandatory to do so right away.

Lura A. White “isn’t part of this project,” Kelly confirmed. Nor is the middle school, which stays as is, with no retrofit cost.

As for Kolarik’s cost comparison, Kelly said that at $53 million, the architects’ current estimate is “less than two times the number we pulled out of a hat three years ago.”

“The numbers you’re quoting come from a master plan” that lists estimated future costs of $101 million on the Shirley side, Kelly said. “But that’s not part of this project.”

But Kolarik decried the disparity between the original $37 million estimate for a middle-high school versus higher numbers and a different project scenario now.

“You still have to take care of other things like renovating Lura A. White, which we thought was going to go away,” he said. “I think you’ve got a hard sell.”

Selectman Kendra Dumont and board Chairman David Swain agreed.

To begin with, early in the regionalization process, selectmen never got numbers they asked for, she said. “Now, we still owe on this (middle school) building” and the Building Committee is presenting a much higher project estimate, among other changes. “All these promises are not coming to fruition,” she said. “It’s very disappointing.”

“I know you’re trying to do what’s right for the kids, but the towns can’t afford this project,” Dumont concluded.

Swain agreed. “This is not the project we were sold on,” he said. And Shirley is stuck with the Lura A. White problem the building project was supposed to solve.

Given the new big-picture scenario, he said Ayer should expect a bill “for their share of the middle school,” which as a regional facility now houses students from both towns.

And cost projections are still too iffy. “We can’t schedule a vote until we have all the numbers,” Swain said.

Kelly cited figures included in the “master plan,” with renovation estimates for Lura A. White in Shirley and Page Hilltop Elementary School in Ayer.

But Shirley’s Ron Marchetti wasn’t comfortable with current estimates, either, as a basis for voting on the project.

“You said ‘best numbers’ when we voted for regionalization,” said Marchetti, a longtime assessor who was the town’s transition manager at the time. “You need to put all the cost data out there so voters can decide.”

That will happen when MSBA is clear on the scope of the project, Kelly said.

As for splitting middle-school costs, Kelly said that’s a subject for more discussion later.

Chris Hillman of Ayer wanted to know how the high school’s outstanding accreditation issues could be solved if the building project proposal doesn’t pass. Just fixing the old building would be “like putting lipstick on a pig,” he said.

“If it’s shot down, the downward spiral continues,” he said, and tuition costs to other districts will go up. And if the high school loses its accreditation, graduates can’t get into the best colleges, he and others said.

Building Committee member Mitch Kahn, of Shirley, said earlier numbers were “never real,” even though they were “in peoples’ heads.” And the two elementary schools will require work anyway, sooner or later.

But the high school project must be decided on now.

“We’re looking at losing half our students,” he said, pointing to healthy numbers in sixth grade that shrink substantially thereafter. A better high school might up those numbers. “So this is also a revenue piece,” he said.

Kelly said there’s a business side, too. If the towns want to attract new business, they need good schools, he said. “It’s an investment.”

Brenda Gleason of Ayer has been a strong school advocate. She said it’s time to move forward now that the feasibility study is over. And if the plan has changed, so be it.

“You get in, you do a study, things change. Get over it, please!” she said. “This sounds like a good plan” and she hopes people will vote for it, she said. “Our high school students need this — now.”

Shirley Treasurer Kevin Johnston asked if choice-in money would come back to the towns if promised improvements pay off.

Not directly, Kelly said. But assessments to each town will reflect added district revenue.

Shirley Finance Committee member Mike Swanton, who served on the Ayer-Shirley Regionalization Committee, was clearly upset with the new plan.

“I fear you’ve put together something that won’t pass,” he said. “Regionalization was supposed to solve the Lura A. White problem, but this plan does not.”

Citing his experience as a member of a former Shirley building committee that oversaw planning and construction of the new middle school, Swanton said there are always ways to cut costs.

“I know that we could go for something more affordable,” he said. “You need to work harder and do this for a lot less money.”

But Kahn didn’t think so. “Our job is to sell this project,” he said. “It will be an asset to both communities, even if sacrifices must be made.” The way things stand now, paying out so much in choice money is “like operating a fifth school building,” he said.

After the high school building project is complete, the district and the towns can figure out what to do about the other schools, he said.

Asked what the project might cost the average taxpayer, school Business Manager Evan Katz said it would be anywhere from an optimistic four to five percent increase to a pessimistic six to seven percent increase for Shirley and Ayer taxpayers, respectively.

Kelly posited that translates to about $150 to $265 more per year.

The high school-only option seems like a last-minute idea, Paul Przybyla said. “Have you really had enough time?”

The building might be too big already, yet the plan calls for an addition. “We’re talking about housing 500 kids in a building that once housed 1,200” in Fort Devens days, he said. “At what point is it cheaper to start from scratch?”

Kelly said the chosen “6b” option was cheaper, and besides, MSBA wouldn’t reimburse for a new build.

Paula Sullivan of Ayer cited her personal and professional experience on that score, including 34 years teaching high school in Ayer.

A longtime resident, Sullivan lived in Shirley previously and graduated from Ayer High School. She recalled the days when the now half-empty building was bursting at the seams. “We were huge!” she said.

Today, “wonderful things” are happening at the high school every day. “I’m proud of that,” she said.

She and other Ayer residents voted for new police and fire stations and a new library addition, she said. But the school gets as much if not more public use than any of them. “I can tell you, this is way overdue,” she said of the building project. “It’s time!”

Ayer Selectman Gary Luca agreed

“Ayer residents knew going in that we needed to renovate the high school and Page-Hilltop, he said. The question now is whether people want a high-quality educational environment or not. “I’m for this proposal,” he said.