SHIRLEY – With a debt exclusion ballot question aimed at paying Shirley’s share of a proposed $5.2 million Ayer Shirley Regional High School fields project coming up at Tuesday’s town election, the school district held what will be its last public presentation Wednesday night.
Now smaller in scope and with a lower cost estimate than earlier versions that topped at $7.2 million, the pitch was mainly for Shirley voters whose rejection of previous debt exclusions derailed the project.
A previous vote of the School Committee had voluntarily tied its borrowing power to fund the project to passage of debt exclusions in both member towns. Ayer passed the measure on the first round.
Former Shirley Finance Committee Chairman John O’Keefe, who strongly opposed the previous proposal and spoke out against it, favors this one.
In a letter that Superintendent Mary Malone read at the recent event, O’Keefe noted that the district worked with town officials and the architects to come up with the new plan. “I staunchly support it” he said, citing three reasons. It costs $2 million less, will renovate deteriorated fields and eliminate safety issues.
Pro and con sentiments that have kept the project circling back to the drawing board for three years might be summed up by an emotional appeal from resident Tim Bresnahan to move ahead. He spoke at the end of the program, following an opposing view from James Quinty, one of Shirley’s three representatives on the six-member School Committee.
Quinty, who has spoken against mainstream plans before, had presented an alternative plan of his own that he said would work better and cost less. The board he serves on did not support it, but it gained some traction among townspeople and Finance Committee members, including O’Keefe.
At the recent session, Quinty again argued against the project as proposed. But he qualified his opposition. “The current situation is not OK,” he said. “This project is critical to the success of the district.” But he has “concerns,” about some aspects of it, he said. Artificial turf, specifically.
Quinty advised waiting until fall to decide on the issue. “I feel this is not the right plan for us,” he said. Citing his own research and “experts” he’s talked to, he said grass is best, for soccer, in particular. “I believe we can do it with natural grass,” he said, while improving stadium access and investing in “other items,” rather than a synthetic surface.
Bresnahan said the debate should be over. “I don’t know why you are so against this,” he said, addressing Quinty. “You have a different rationale every time.” Bresnahan and other proponents have said the fields project is not only much-needed but long overdue.
Malone said the fields are in “dire condition.” Most are unusable, she said.
Bresnahan said action to fix the situation can’t wait. “We built a beautiful high school,” he said,. “Let’s bring the fields up to the same standard. “Now is the time to… finish our school.”
As for the artificial turf Quinty objects to, he said it’s the preferred go-to for new school athletic fields and that it’s been used safely and successfully by other schools throughout the region.
“Folks, our kids are playing soccer in the outfield of a baseball field built 64 years ago,” he said. It’s unsafe, he said, especially after it rains.
It’s also a matter of school pride, he said, noting that students from other schools have noted the “awful” shape Ayer Shirley’s high school fields are in.
The project on the table now is a more modest version of the original, $7.2 million proposal, with some items sidelined, such as a bigger, better field house/concession stand with a new press box and bathrooms. For now, the building stays as is, Malone said, with a foundation for expansion later.
The proposed renovations — rebuilding and widening the running track, laying artificial turf in some areas, re-configuring some field areas, new bleachers and lights, providing handicapped access and other upgrades — are considered essential for safety reasons and to comply with ADA regulations.