School district makes final pitch for fields improvement project

ASRSD School Committee member Jonathan Deforge, who represents Shirley on the six-member board, explains a point at the recent forum.

SHIRLEY – The Ayer Shirley Regional School District made one more pitch for the $7 million high school athletic fields makeover plan that’s been a work in progress since 2017 and has driven a wedge between passionate project supporters in both member towns who say it’s a must-do, and opponents who say it’s overly ambitious and costs too much.

Advertised with a one-hour time frame, the forum Tuesday night lasted over twice that long as the small audience peppered a panel of architects, district officials and school staff with questions about the project, including a couple of creative ideas such as using volunteer labor or fundraising to keep costs down.

The issue came to a head last year when debt exclusion elections were held in both member towns. Shirley voters rejected the ballot question. Ayer voters approved it.

The School Committee had pledged not to move forward with the project unless both towns passed debt exclusions to pay for it. But Shirley’s no vote didn’t mean calling it quits.

According to Superintendent Mary Malone, the renovation – which promises to fix a host of problems, including lack of handicapped access and field conditions that pose safety risks to student athletes; expand the concession stand/press box, add bathrooms and install synthetic turf on the track and football fields, among other upgrades — was an absolute must, so shelving it wasn’t an option.

“We went “back to the drawing table,” Malone said.

The new plan downsizes some items proposed first time around, and won’t reconfigure playing fields, which the first plan called for.

Architects worked within the existing footprint, significantly trimming costs, which had ballooned to $11 million. Proponents blamed rising construction prices and inflation and argued that the longer they wait, the higher the cost.

The revised version whittled the estimate back down to $7 million, further reduced by a $500,000 pledge from the Norton Foundation and another $300,000 from the district’s cash reserves.

Asked if tapping reserve funds would deprive educational programs or other things the schools might use that money for, School Committee member Jonathan Deforge said that’s not at issue, since the account now stands at about $600,000 and the balance is added to annually.

A second debt exclusion vote in Shirley on Sept. 28, could determine the fate of the project, which now presents with a $6.2 million price tag.

At Tuesday night’s forum, a panel consisting of School Committee members, town officials, architects and school athletic and grounds-keeping staff presented various aspects of the downsized fields project plan and fielded questions that for the most part indicated opposition to the project.

Shirley Finance Committee Chairman John O’Keefe, for example, said his board opposes it for three reasons. The concession stand and press box, adding $318,000 and $306,000, respectively, to the project cost but neither one is necessary, in the Fin Com’s view.

The third objection is philosophical, he said and hinges on an alternative plan that James Quinty, one of the town’s three representatives on the six-member School Committee, offered up last time. “We advocated…to look aggressively at using town fields,” for some sports rather than expanding the high school complex, O’Keefe said, but no other school board member backed it up.

Malone and other panel members said that assessment was inaccurate. The committee did discuss using town fields but directors in the two towns said it wasn’t workable, they said. Besides, Malone said, the general consensus among project planners was that it’s key to keep school sports on campus.

One resident pointed out problems with synthetic turf, a pricey part of the project. But it wasn’t cost that concerned him.

“I’m opposed…for health and safety reasons,” Larry Shephard said, citing the “tire grind” used as fill under the turf’s plastic surface. He said it’s a “known hazard” and that the material leaches out toxic substances, including carcinogens, more so when exposed to the elements. And the surface gets hotter than grass in hot weather.

Panel members Nate Diffen, the high school’s athletic trainer; Patrick Maguire, of ACTIVITAS, the landscape architect for the project, and Flansburgh architect and company executive V.P. Jorge Cruz addressed Shepard’s concerns.

While it’s true that synthetic surfaces can get very hot, they also cool down fast, so say it’s 90 degrees at noon, the best bet is to hold off playing on the field until later in the day.

Maguire said there are “hundreds” of synthetic turf fields in Massachusetts.

Diffen backed him up. The MIAA lists restrictions on its website, he said, measures schools should take to mitigate issues with overheated fields, such as strategically hosing them down.

They also deflected the notion that the field will be costlier than grass to take care of. Although it must be groomed regularly and replaced every 8-12 years, it doesn’t need consistent irrigation or mowing, they said and the surface is “consistent” rather than varied, one of the problems with grass fields.

But Shephard wasn’t convinced. Adding heat to the equation makes matters worse in terms of the tire grind he objected to in the first place, he said, accelerating “outgasses” that he said are hazardous.

“Hundreds of studies” show otherwise, Maguire said, and there’s no reason to think tire grind is unsafe to use this way. Chemicals in the rubber don’t “absorb into the body,” he said.

Shephard said he’d seen no such study and hadn’t received information he’d asked for about it. “I don’t see how we can go with this,” he said.

For the most part, though, questions focused on the cost of the project and its impact on taxpayers, particularly in light of the need to address the condition of the district’s two aging elementary schools, Page Hilltop in Ayer and Lura A. White in Shirley, either by renovating both buildings or building new.

Either way, Malone said, the district would apply for funding from MSBA, which reimburses for building projects it accepts and would only consider one at a time, not two. But the matter hasn’t come up, she said, and the school board has made no decisions about which way to go.

Committee Chair Michelle Granger agreed. “We’ve had no discussions…” she said. As for the two schools, Flansburgh did assessments of both and found no major issues.

Both buildings are “in good shape” and are well maintained, she said.

Town Administrator Mike McGovern spoke to the tax impact issue, drawing facts and figures from the Power Point presentation. If the debt exclusion passes, it would cover Shirley’s share of the project, or 42 percent, he said, and the total assessment, with interest, would be $545,267, or $229,012 annually.

Translated to the impact on individual tax bills, it would add $123.79 to the average tax bill in the first year of the debt, dwindling to $79.62 in the final year, when the loan is paid off. The figures are based on annual tax bills for an average home price in town: $309,307.

The debt exclusion ballot question comes up for reconsideration in Shirley on Saturday, Sept. 28. Polls at the Town Offices will be open from 8 am to 8pm. Malone and Deforge reiterated assurances that the total assessment to both towns for the project would not exceed $6.2 million, no matter what.

No dollar amount will appear on the ballot, however. Asked why, School Committee member Dan Gleason, of Ayer, stood up to explain. It’s a legal restriction, he said, citing the Proposition 2 ½ law that governs debt exclusion elections.