SHIRLEY — Finance Committee Chairman John O’Keefe told the selectmen Monday night that his board has concerns about the $7.1 million high school athletic fields project that an Ayer Shirley Regional School District Committee subgroup hammered out over 18 months.
The fincom is advising Shirley voters to say no to a districtwide ballot question aimed at moving the project forward.
Voters have their say at an Oct. 6 referendum, with two questions on the ballot:
* The first question authorizes the school district to borrow money. This question will be decided by the combined vote in both towns.
* A second question asks voters to approve a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion to pay their town’s share of the project cost. Each town’s vote will be counted separately.
Shirley’s share would be about $2 million, per the 60/40 percentage split spelled out in the Regional Agreement, said Jonathan Deforge, who is one of the town’s three representatives on the six-member school board.
O’Keefe, citing lack of statistical data to back up some of the Fields Committee’s rationale, said his board does not support the project as proposed.
For example, the fincom questions whether injuries to student-athletes are attributed to the condition of current track and field facilities.
Project presentations held in Ayer and Shirley featured students who described impediments and obstacles on the track, swampy outfields and oddly situated spaces and talked about how they or a teammate had tripped, slipped, fallen, wrenched an ankle, or nearly pitched headlong into a ditch.
But O’Keefe said the committee could not come up with statistics to back this anecdotal evidence. He questioned the notion that injuries would diminish with improved facilities, which would presumably be used more frequently and by more students. He also said his board felt the committee had not provided sufficiently detailed financial data.
O’Keefe suggested opting out of the current proposal in favor of a plan proposed by School Committee member Jim Quinty of Shirley, which he said could cut project costs about in half.
Quinty was the holdout when the board voted 5 to 1 for the fields project. The plan he sketched Monday night included resurfacing the running track, field upgrades and other improvements, relocating various components of the existing sports complex and moving baseball and softball fields off campus to fields in Ayer and Shirley.
Fields Committee members said Quinty’s idea was vetted during the planning and had been ruled out for reasons ranging from logistics and scheduling to design issues.
School Committee member Dan Gleason, one of Ayer’s representatives, said the plan on the table had been mapped out by professional engineers and was the best use of limited space. The subcommittee included School Committee members, representatives from each town and recreation officials, all of whom provided valuable input, he said,
Quinty also objected to a voting schedule in which the election, set for Oct. 6, precedes Shirley’s fall Special Town Meeting, set for Oct. 16. Traditionally, it would be the other way around, he said, with the project presented at Town Meeting and voted up or down before, not after taking it up at the polls. State law and the Regional Agreement do not require such a set-up, however.
O’Keefe said that if the district-wide ballot question passes and the debt exclusion fails, the assessment would accrue anyway and the town would have to tap its municipal budget to pay the bill. That scenario bothered the selectmen, too. Selectmen Chairman Enrico Cappucci said public safety and other town departments would suffer if that happened.
School Committee members, reiterating an earlier promise, said that if the debt exclusion fails in either town, they would table the fields project, no matter how the district ballot turns out.
O’Keefe brought up the potential need for repairs, renovation or replacement of the district’s two aging elementary schools, Page Hilltop in Ayer and Lura A. White in Shirley, which could cost $20 million or up to $78 million to build a new, regional elementary school, O’Keefe said.
No such plan is in the works, School Committee members said. They added that those projects will plenty of planning time, including applying for state funding and a waiting period if a building project proposal makes it into the queue. Public forums would precede any vote, he said.
That would be years in the future, Deforge said, most likely after hefty past debts such as the middle school project are paid off.
Selectman Debra Flagg said all the talk about elementary schools clouded the issue at hand and she stood by the board’s earlier decision to approve the election date and the two ballots. Her colleagues agreed.