SHIRLEY Voters defeated by a narrow margin on Saturday the same debt exclusion ballot question they said no to last year, aimed in both instances at paying the town’s share of a $7 million high school athletic fields project.
The count was 739 for and 751 against.
Business was brisk at the polls on this warm, sunny, early-autumn day. Just before noon, voter count stood at 700. The final count was 1,490, representing 41.2 percent of the town’s registered voters.
Supporters and opponents came out to plead their respective causes, one last time, with an array of signs outside the town offices.
One pro-fields group staked out turf by 7:30 Saturday morning, with plans to stay, in shifts, all day.The issue — controversial almost from the get-go, has been making headlines for a couple of years.
Percentages set out in the regional agreement split building project costs between the two member towns, both of which are still shouldering debt from a multi-million-dollar high school renovation/addition project completed a couple of years ago.
The fields project would have capped that project, proponents said, a hefty chunk of which was covered by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. But MSBA does not reimburse school districts for building or renovating athletic facilities.
If the vote had gone the other way — approving the debt exclusion — Shirley’s share of the total assessment for the fields project — $6.2 million in the latest, downsized version — would have added over $500,000 to the town’s debt balance, raising taxes by about $123 on the average, annual tax bill the first year and dropping to about $79 in the final year as the debt was paid off.
Proponents argued that the fields makeover was essential, while opponents said it cost too much.
Add to the mix the uncertainty over whether one or both of the district’s two aging elementary schools, Page Hilltop in Ayer and Lura A. White in Shirley, might need major renovations or replacement soon.
Those arguments haven’t changed since last year, when the the field project’s fate was tied to the outcome of debt exclusion elections in Ayer and Shirley, since the School Committee had said the district would not move forward unless the ballot question passed in both member towns.
It passed in Ayer, but failed in Shirley.
The project on the table this time came with a lower assessment cost than the original proposal, thanks in part to the promise of a $500,000 grant from the Norton Foundation, $300,000 from school district reserves and strategic trims around the edges of the earlier version.
But Shirley voters didn’t buy it and the debt exclusion failed again.
Reached for comment after the results were in, Dr. Mary Malone, ASRSD superintendent, said the outcome was very disappointing.
“I thought we had a solid, transparent plan that optimized efficiency and cost-effectiveness by renovating the existing (fields) footprint,” she said. “And we responded to inquiries,” including those from project opponents.“My heartfelt thanks to all the people who worked so hard… many of them volunteers,” she said.
“I am sorry for the students in our district,” she said. “But tomorrow is another day.”
Finance Committee Chairman John O’Keefe, who has been an outspoken opponent of the fields project, said he was pleased with the outcome and “overjoyed” that so many people turned out to vote.
In his view, the reason people said no a second time was that the project the district forwarded this time wasn’t significantly different than it was when first presented and he saw that as “arrogant,” he said.“There was no effort to reach compromise,” he said, “no discussion with opponents.”
Despite arguments and alternative proposals from the other side, he said that proponents presented basically the same project, with the same overall cost.
“It was too much,” he said. And the infusion of $300,000 of “existing taxpayer money” didn’t impress him, either.
School Committee Chairman Michele Granger, one of Ayer’s three representatives on the six-member board, said the outcome was a blow, but there’s work to do, and that would be the focus, going forward.“To say I am disappointed is an understatement,” Granger said.
“It is disappointing that the voters of Shirley were not in support of our reduced scope plan,” she said, noting that the committee and district administration spent countless hours “advocating to address deficiencies in our athletic facilities.”
So what happens now?
“We will need to work to determine the most crucial elements for replacement and how to fund the improvements we need to make our facilities adequate,” Granger said.
School Committee member Jonathan Deforge, who represents Shirley and served on the original Fields Committee, said the only bright side was the size of voter turnout.
“It is unfortunate the voters in Shirley chose not to support this much-needed project,” Deforge said. But although the vote failed, “the need for improved (athletic) facilities still exists.”
“I’d like to thank all the volunteers and community members who have advocated on our behalf these last months,” he said.
“In the coming months I hope we can continue to make progress toward modernizing our facilities with minimal disruption to our students and communities.”