Officials mull how best to bring students back to district schools

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

SHIRLEY — “If we had a project of $50 million for grades 6 through 12, we probably wouldn’t be here having this conversation, but we don’t. We have one over $75 million,” said Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Carl Mock, addressing the town’s Finance Committee July 9.

Mock was explaining the school district Building Committee’s rationale for opting for a high school-only building renovation, rather than the more expensive middle-high school option.

“The feasibility study was supposed to flesh out different options,” said Building Committee Vice Chairman Mitch Kahn. “I don’t know how we did it, but within about one to one-and-a-half weeks we figured out we don’t have to renovate Lura A. White at this time.”

Built in the 1930s, with additions in the ’50s and ’70s, Lura A. White has long been the subject of discussions about its renovation or closing.

“When you look at choice-out, this is cash revenue coming in instead of going out,” he said of the high school-only renovation option. “If we don’t spend that $20 million (difference in cost) now and start bringing those kids back, we will be in a better position to determine what will happen with Lura A. White, Page Hilltop, and the rest of the district.”

Mock added that from an educational perspective, Lura A. White is a wonderful school, and that bringing back students to the district would be a cheaper option in the long run than renovating both the middle and high school plus renovating Lura A. White now.

The choice-out problem

According to Kahn, about half of the elementary school students from the two towns are lost to other school districts by the time they get to high school, and that trend is projected to continue.

“Look at Lunenburg, North Middlesex, Littleton — everybody is running into the same problem. We should be able to fill up every seat we have available. With more seats, less choice-out, and potentially more choice-in dollars, the cost goes down and revenue goes up.”

Kahn said there are several examples of other school districts that had the same significant decline in school facilities, where students choiced-out to newer or better schools. Once the school districts put in a new building or did a renovation, he said, the schools were back to full capacity within a couple of years.

“If we want to fill seats while waiting for choice-out kids to come back, it will take a number of years to keep kids from choicing-out, but choice-in will help fill those seats while you wait for that. It allows some flexibility to manage the capacity,” commented Finance Committee Vice Chairman Mike Swanton.

“The committee hasn’t talked much about excess capacity — that’s not a driving force behind this. But I see it as an advantage,” said Mock. “I am pretty optimistic about the programming we are heading towards and our ability to retain students. Four hundred ninety-five (in student capacity) is coming from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. That is their number and that is the one we have to build to.”

Student retention already increasing

Mock said that in June 2011, only 54 percent of the district’s eighth-grade students intended to attend high school in the district. That percentage did not include the number of students who had already left the middle school after sixth grade to attend one of the area’s charter or private schools.

This year, said Mock, 74 percent of eighth-graders indicated that they will be attending the district’s high school. He attributed the increase to the excitement about the upcoming building renovation, as well as the positive changes in educational programming.

“The freshman class next year will be the largest entering class we have had in some years,” he said.

Next steps

The first phase of the high-school project was the feasibility study, which took place from January into April. The second and current phase is the schematic design phase, which will lead to more detailed specifications and drawings.

According to Kahn, the MSBA will do more cost estimation, and then the building committee will compare its estimates for the high school-only option with those of the construction manager. “When we’re finished with the schematic design phase, we will take another look (at the estimated costs),” he said.

Mock said that in order to get early October MSBA approval for the schematic design, the Building Committee must present its members with the design and its cost estimates by Aug. 9. At that time, the committee would be able to get the Finance Committee “some pretty firm numbers.”

Once the schematic design is submitted to the MSBA, its members will take six to eight weeks to review it, and the design and cost will be determined prior to the October Town Meeting. After early October, said Mock, the committee has 120 days to secure approval from the voters.

The vote

The vote regarding the ASRSD high-school renovation will require three elections. The first is a regional election at which votes from both communities are totaled to approve or disapprove of the School Committee incurring the debt, based on the early October number from the MSBA.

The second is a debt-exclusion vote held in each individual community.

“The regional agreement only requires one vote — a regional vote. But it is very clear that in all of the information that was given to people in the regionalization public hearing, that each community would have the debt-exclusion vote,” explained Mock.

He said the timing of those votes is complicated by the state and national elections and the holiday season. There will be some discussion about whether both votes should be held simultaneously. A limiting factor, said Mock, is a quirk in the law that says there must be an eight-hour window in which to hold the vote — five hours shy of the usual 13 available during state and national elections.

After elections in the affirmative, the project would be on track to be completed by the fall of 2015.

The value of education

“We want to be able to frame this into the town’s capital-planning needs,” said Shirley Town Treasurer Kevin Johnston. “Whatever the scope of project it is, how can we frame it in terms of the town’s overall capital plan? The Capital Planning Committee, Finance Committee, and Board of Selectmen have to work together.”

“Cost and affordability is not the only question,” Mock emphasized. “We want to make this as affordable for both communities as we possibly can. This option is more affordable in both the short and long term.

“But my question is, how strongly do you believe in the value of this project in terms of the school district and the communities over the next 10 to 20 years?

“I hear that conversation a lot in Ayer. Town officials believe that the success of this project is the most important thing to happen in these two communities in the next 10 to 20 years. I am curious as a taxpayer in this community if you feel that way.

“I think that is one of the things you have to wrestle with,” he said, adding that he did not expect an answer right away. “I have become convinced, as an employee, that this is critical.”