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Last in a 3-part series

By M.E. Jones


AYER/SHIRLEY — The spacious Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School Auditorium swallowed up the relative handful of folks from the communities who attended the most recent public forum hosted by the ASRSD Building Committee.

The forum wrapped the schematic design phase of the proposed high school building project.

Despite the low turnout, those who came showed lively interest in the project and some asked probing questions.

Laurie Nehring, of Ayer, was interested in “green” features that might be incorporated into the design plan and concerned about crowding at the middle school.

“This building is pretty crowded,” she said. She asked if FLLAC classrooms now housed there — or anything else — would be moved to the high school to free up space.

FLLAC is a multi-member special education collaborative that both former school districts and the region that replaced them are part of. FLLAC rents space at schools throughout the region, including the middle school and Ayer-Shirley High School.

Superintendent Carl Mock said FLLAC would be moving out of the middle school, but not next year and not to the high school, which has two FLLAC classrooms that were incorporated into the design for the renovated and expanded building.

A Shirley resident whose daughter attends the middle school said it was “very crowded,” and that he knows of an English teacher who doesn’t have a classroom and whose classes meet in the library or band room. “It’s not large enough,” he said. “What’s the plan?”

“It’s tight, we agree,” School Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Kelly said. But there’s reason to believe the student population will go down, not up, in the future. “Part of the process (submission to MSBA) requires enrollment projections,” he said. “Overall, the trend is downward over the next 10 to 20 years in this area of the state.”

Kelly’s answer didn’t allay the man’s concern. The development where his family lives has 100 new houses planned, he said. “The population doesn’t seem to be going down.”

“We believe there is sufficient space (at the middle school) for at least several years,” Mock said. “Yes, there will be some sharing of classroom space, but we hope to address those constraints with scheduling.”

Patrick Hughes, of Ayer, asked if a less costly project had been considered, say $35 million versus $56 million?

Building Committee Chairman Murray Clark said no, but Kelly amended that answer. “Yes, but Ayer and Shirley would pay it all, without MSBA reimbursement,” he said. Basically, it would cost the district more to do less.

Hughes also asked if there are more school building projects on the horizon. “At some point, yes,” Clark answered, with repairs and renovations envisioned for the two elementary schools. “But not for five years or more…”

Kelly extended the timeframe. It could be seven to 10 years before Page Hilltop in Ayer and/or Lura A. White in Shirley get major makeovers, he said.

For now, the focus is on the district’s flagship high school.

“Both elementary schools need work, but we’re not losing students there,” he said. He explained that with a new and improved high school, from the revamped structure to program updates, the district hopes to staunch the flow of choice-out students to other districts, costing about $2 million each year.

Ayer resident and School Committee member Dan Gleason wanted to know if the Building Committee was looking at capital plans in member towns with an eye to how the building project debt fits. “Can we show a pay-off schedule?” he asked.

“Once we have a firm figure from MSBA, we will work with Ayer and Shirley Finance Committees and our bond counsel on that,” Clark said.

But Gleason said the spotlight should be on the complete financial fabric. “Total taxes, not just this project.”

“We’ll have to work that out,” Clark said.

Shirley resident Donald Jones asked why so much of the building would be devoted to common areas and open space versus academic classrooms, of which there are just 19. “You’ll have a lot of air to move,” he ventured.

“The key thing is that all those spaces are educational,” SMMA architect Alex Pitkin said, “with some classrooms coordinated” with the new floor plan.

Jones questioned the size of the TV studio and having separate spaces for band and chorus.

He was told that those spaces fit the project and its learning goals and that band and chorus are “critical programs with specific functions” in high schools across the state.

Laurie Nehring wanted to hear more about green upgrades. “Could you talk about classroom renovations” in those terms, she asked.

Pitkin said each classroom will be set up as if it were brand new, with new floors, walls, ceilings and systems that will up energy efficiency and new windows for more light. Insulation will be added, too, he said.

As for A/C, only certain areas will be air conditioned, as is “typical” in a school building — administrative offices and the auditorium, for example, which doubles as community space. It will be somewhat smaller, per MSBA guidelines, he added.

The A/C list also includes the library/media center and computer labs, for equipment housed there as well as people’s comfort.

The gymnasium will not be air-conditioned. “But we’ve talked about piping in a cold water conduit for summer use,” Pitkin said. Flip a switch and it helps cool things off.

The two-level commons area, which includes the cafeteria, will be air-conditioned. “It’s gathering space,” Pitkin explained.

“One of our objectives was to reduce common spaces used for only one purpose.”

On site visits, the design team saw larger areas with multiple uses versus traditional cafeterias. Such spaces are used for projects, meetings and gathering as well as to eat in and events may be held there, he said. They are light, airy, welcoming.

“We can use it for evening activities,” he said of the high school commons area, which can be closed off so that other areas of the building are safely off limits during events.

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