SHIRLEY – While Ayer Shirley Regional School Superintendent Mary Malone asks Shirley voters to support the high school athletic fields renovation project at the upcoming Debt Exclusion election, Shirley Finance Committee Chairman John O’Keefe urges them to vote no.

The difference of opinion echoes the two-sided view of the project that surfaced last time around.

Having already rejected the $7.1 million Ayer Shirley Regional High School athletic fields project proposal the district floated last year by voting down a debt exclusion ballot question aimed at paying the town’s share of the project, voters here will be asked to re-vote on the same question when it comes up again next month at a special election set for Saturday, Sept. 28.

In a letter to residents earlier this month, O’Keefe argued that taxpayers are being asked to vote on essentially the same plan as presented last year,” and that neither one is acceptable.

The Finance Committee opposed the previous plan as well and now believes the new plan as presented isn’t the most cost effective one the Fields Committee could have come up with to upgrade the fields, address safety and handicapped access issues and bring the complex up to 21st century standards.

After working with an architect on the original plan for nearly two years, the model included a new running track, artificial turf, a field house/concession stand with a second level press box, elevator and bathrooms, handicapped access and other football stadium upgrades, such as new lights and bleachers.

This time, the plan to upgrade and modernize the school’s athletic fields and football stadium is somewhat less ambitious and the cost estimate is lower, “up to $6.2 million,” according to the latest estimate Superintendent Mary Malone included in her own letter to Shirley residents.

Restating the goal, Malone said it’s to “build a multi-use athletic facility that is safe and accessible for every student and resident in Shirley and Ayer.” Among other needful things, the entire field complex needs to be ADA compliant (handicapped accessible) she said, citing a federal law.

Other must-dos include new synthetic turf football/soccer field and running track, new bleachers and new, “natural turf” baseball and softball fields.

Unlike the earlier version, however, the new plan does not call for moving fields from one area to another. Working within the existing footprint helped reduce costs substantially, Malone said.

The project will take about a year to complete, she said, with work starting in March, 2020. In that scenario, baseball/softball fields would be ready by September, 2020 and the stadium in the spring of 2021. That is, “if all goes according to plan.”

Which brings up another key difference between the last try and this one. While special elections were held in both member towns last time around, only Shirley will vote on the issue this time, since Ayer voters already endorsed their town’s debt exclusion and therefore won’t be asked again.

Previously, the School Committee had promised not to move forward with the fields project unless both towns passed debt exclusion ballot questions, so, presumably, the same caveat applies this time as well.

Shirley voters will be asked to approve funding of “up to $6.2 million,” Malone wrote, with emphasis on the UP, meaning the district would not assess for more than that amount. If they agree, the town’s share will be 42 percent, or $2,604,000 over 15 years, she said, excluding interest.

O’Keefe doesn’t buy it and in his letter lists suggestions to further reduce costs, such as eliminating the concession stand with bathrooms and storage, scrapping the press box, keeping the current track and resurfacing the existing football field. Estimated net savings: $681,984.

Revisiting a cost-saving idea presented last year by James Quinty, one of Shirley’s three representatives on the six-member ASRSD School Committee, O’Keefe argued for using town fields rather than school fields for baseball, saving $733,522, he said.

The Finance Committee objects to asking Shirley voters to pass a debt exclusion, again, in part because of future projects that might overburden taxpayers. To do so “further delays our consideration for needed improvements to our elementary schools,” O’Keefe wrote. “Any elementary school project will be $10’s of millions…times two if each town retains its own school.”

Malone’s letter doesn’t address future projects but sticks to the point, which is getting the fields project started. To that end, she urged Shirley voters to support it at the upcoming debt exclusion election, set for Saturday, Sept. 28, from 8 am to 8pm at the Town Offices.

A public forum on the fields project will be held Sept. 10, 6-7 pm in the Ayer Shirley Middle School library.

Meantime, anyone with questions can call the superintendent at 978-772-8600, Ext. 1508, or e-mail her at mmalone@asrsd.org Or contact School Committee Chairman Michele Granger mgranger@asrsd.org.