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Part 1 of a 3-part story

AYER — “This is the most important project to come before us for many years,” said Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Building Committee Chairman Murray Clark. And for at least the next decade, he added.

The message the retired Ayer resident wanted to convey about the proposed ASRSD building project seemed clear: It’s essential to get this done and to do it right.

This fall, Ayer-Shirley Regional School District voters will be asked to approve the project, a renovation and addition that doubles the size of the existing 50-year-old high-school building from 70,000 to 140,000 square feet for an estimated cost of $54 million.

But taxpayers will not be asked to pay the whole bill. More than half of covered project costs — perhaps as much as 70 percent with incentive points added in — will be reimbursed to the district by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

The Building Committee envisions a November time frame for the votes, to be structured by MSBA rules.

First, a district-wide vote will determine whether voters approve the project. If the majority vote is yes, then separate debt exclusion elections must be held in each town.

A debt exclusion is a specific type of Proposition 2 1/2 tax override. A general override ups property taxes permanently, but a debt exclusion is temporary and remains in effect only until the debt is paid, with the tax hike diminishing incrementally each year.

Clark’s remarks opened a sparsely attended public forum held at Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School last week.

Called “Schematic Design Forum” on the project calendar, the event was another must on the MSBA to-do list. In fact, just about every step so far has followed the state agency’s schedule and will continue to do so, from the Feasibility Study to schematic design to the construction stage, with anticipated completion in 2014.

But it all hinges on the process continuing on track, particularly the votes in November.

“A strong educational system is the backbone of any community,” and key to economic growth, Clark continued, citing perks such as attracting new businesses and young families to Ayer and Shirley and enhancing property values in both towns.

Shirley resident and Building Committee Vice Chairman Mitch Kahn spoke next, outlining what’s been done so far: The design has been refined. That is, switched from a middle and high school for about 800 students to a high school-only model for less than 400, with MSBA’s blessing; an ECO-charette was recently held to lay out sustainable design elements and discuss “green” ideas that could save energy if incorporated into the project, with public input; and a construction manager was hired.

The next big step is to submit the schematic design to MBSA on Aug. 9, with engineering and other cost estimates included.

Kahn detailed the reasons for choosing the so-called construction manager at risk, or CMR, versus a more “traditional” hiring approach that might cost less up front but may not be as effective or cost-efficient in the long run. MSBA also favors the CMR route and doing it their way adds a percentage point to the reimbursement package, he said.

Requests for proposals went out and responses were reviewed by a three-person Building Committee sub-group formed specifically to hire the CMR.

After narrowing the applicant field and interviewing three top candidates, the subcommittee presented its recommendation to the full committee, which ratified the choice.

The School Committee then approved the choice of Consigli Construction, a 100-year-old family firm with substantial experience in school building projects.

Next: The Big Picture