The Ayer Shirley Regional School District’s ambitious $7.1 million high school athletic fields project was stopped dead in its tracks Tuesday night, as voters in Shirley rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion to fund that town’s portion of the work.
Ayer voters supported the debt exclusion, but the project needed support in both communities to move forward.
Specifically, approval in both communities would have accepted a debt exclusion that would raise taxes until the debt incurred by the school district, in this instance a 15 year bond, is paid off.
Unlike a district-wide ballot earlier this year that gave the school district borrowing power for the project, and in which votes from both towns were tallied together, Tuesday’s vote gave each town an individual say in the matter.
There were 713 votes cast in Ayer, a 12 percent turnout according to Town Clerk Susan Copeland.
The vote was 496 in favor 217 against.
Total turnout in Shirley was 1,218, according to Town Clerk Bill Oelfke, or 28.2 percent of the town’s 4,319 registered voters. The vote was 576 in favor, 642 against.
The outcome effectively stops the project as proposed in its because the School Committee has pledged not to move forward unless debt exclusions passed in both towns.
Figures rolled out at a public forum a couple of weeks ago showed the tax impact if the measure passed.
In Ayer, which has a split tax rate, the residential tax bill for a median-priced home valued at $312,800 would go up $69.25 a year for the 15-year bond period. Commercial taxpayers would pay $125 more.
In Shirley, which has a single tax rate and a median home price of $292,655, the average annual tax increase would be $105.
The issue has raised controversy, particularly in Shirley, where Selectman Enrico Cappucci came out against the project as proposed and Jim Quinty, a town representative on the regional School Committee, garnered support for an idea of his own design to fix the 54-year-old fields, which are in rough shape, for less money.
Ayer Town Hall was lit up with holiday lights and busy with voter traffic Tuesday night, but nobody was standing outside with signs urging them to vote for or against the only question on the ballot.
The scene was different in Shirley. A truck with a huge “Vote No” sign was parked by the entrance to Hospital Road and two small, sign-toting groups had set up on each side of Keady Way, leading to the Town Offices. “Vote No,” the signs read. Some even said please.
Unfazed by the cold, Ayer Shirley Regional High students Emma Spitale, Justin Cullinan and Deran Quinty, and Sierra Quinty, an eighth-grader at Ayer Shirley Middle School held “Please, Vote No,” signs. Deran, 17, will be able to vote next year, he pointed out.
For now, though, he, like the others, opposed the fields project. Too expensive, they said.
“We can find a better plan,” Cullinan said, arguing that it’s more important to address the two aging elementary schools first. If taxpayers buy into the athletic fields project now, they might say no to others later on, the students said.