SHIRLEY — The Ayer Shirley Regional High School fields project was a hot topic last year, particularly in Shirley, where voters will be asked – again – if they will accept a debt exclusion (temporary tax rate hike under provisions of Proposition 2 1/2) to cover the town’s share of the project.
Basically, it’s a do-over; the same vote failed here last year.
Now, with a downsized project plan on the table, the selectmen on Monday night set a date for a debt exclusion election: Saturday, September 28. Polls at the Town Offices will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
In the meantime, a public information session is in the works to bring voters up to speed on the latest proposal. No date has yet been set, but the selectmen may do so at their next meeting, August 5.
As for the election, Shirley voters will again be asked to temporarily raise the town’s tax rate to pay it’s “allocable” share (about 42 percent, according to Town Administrator Mike McGovern) of a bond the school district aims to secure for the fields project, the latest version of which will reportedly cost about $1 million less than the $7.1 million plan proposed last year.
No dollar figure will appear on the ballot, however.
When debt exclusion elections were held in both towns last December, Ayer said yes. Shirley said no.
Although the fields project passed muster at an earlier Town Meeting, a majority of Shirley voters rejected the proposal when it came to a district wide election in October. But with results tallied together, the total vote favored the plan and the question passed.
Some might have seen that outcome as a green light, but the School Committee was more circumspect.
Chairman Jonathan DeForge, one of Shirley’s three representatives on the six-member board, said then that the intent was not to saddle either town with a bill it could not pay.
The full board sealed that view with a vote, promising that if debt exclusions failed in both member towns, or in either one, the district would not move forward.
But that didn’t mean giving up on a project that had taken over two years to develop.
While track and field repairs addressed safety concerns for the time being, the School Committee established a working group, hired a new architect and went back to the drawing board.
The second planning process has been low-key, compared to the first.
Plenty of publicity preceded the elections last year, including public presentations in both towns.
An alternative project plan proposed by School Committee member Jim Quinty, who represents Shirley, gained traction in town, but the rest of the board opposed it. With the pro-active Fields Committee heading the effort and strong support from the school community, controversy flared.
Now, the issue comes up again, this time without much ado.
Ayer-Shirley School Supt. Mary Malone made the rounds. After meeting with Ayer town officials, they came to the Shirley selectmen and asked them to set a date for a debt exclusion election.
At that time, Malone said Ayer’s Board of Selectmen and town counsel had determined that it was not necessary to repeat the process in the other member town, despite changes since the earlier vote.
At the recent meeting, Selectman Debra Flagg said she’d prefer that elections be held in both towns. But she conceded the point.
The selectmen try to accommodate other boards and departments’ requests, she said, and she trusts voters to decide in this case.
Residents know what their households can afford, Flagg said, noting that future school building projects could raise their taxes again, addressing the need to repair or replace the district’s two aging elementary schools, Page Hilltop in Ayer and Lura A. White in Shirley.
Chairman Bryan Sawyer acknowledged that the board might block the district’s latest try by refusing to schedule the election but he did not think they should do so.
Former Selectman Enrico Cappucci disagreed. “We said no twice,” he said, noting that this would be the third time the school district has “asked for a vote to get what they want.”
Another resident in the audience voiced a different concern.
Tim Hatch said he’s worried that the bond authorization as it stands might allow the school district to borrow up to the $7.1 million it had originally asked for versus the lower amount.
Either way, he predicted expenses that will dwarf this one down the road, such as another building project. Citing School Committee discussions, he said that issue could come up early next year.
Asked at the earlier meeting how $1 million was cut from the earlier fields project proposal, Malone credited the new subcommittee, which worked with the architect on a less ambitious field overhaul.
The first Plan B costed out higher than the previous version, she said at the time, citing increased costs for materials and construction. So they went down the itemized list of options to find cuts.
The complete makeover envisioned earlier would have relocated existing playing fields, but this one does not. The footprint stays the same, she said.
While the revamp is designed to bring the 50-plus year old facilities up to date, fix safety problems and meet handicapped access requirements, as the previous plan did, it’s a pared-down version with reduced cost estimates.
Among the items scratched or “tweaked” from the original: a downsized stadium plan with a smaller multi-purpose building, a ramp instead of an elevator, fewer bathrooms and reduced seating.
When it came to setting the election date Monday night, the newest board member, Andre Jean Jacques, declined to make the motion and abstained from voting. Flagg and Sawyer voted aye.