Residents Hear Final Pitch for Ayer Shirley Fields Upgrade
SHIRLEY -- The Ayer Shirley Regional School District’s athletic fields presentation last week was the final of several sessions held in the two member towns over the summer and fall, before voters head to the polls on Dec. 11 to seal its fate.
The district has permission in hand to borrow up to $7.1 million for the project after a districtwide election approved it and favorable votes followed at both town meetings.
But the Regional School Committee has pledged not to go ahead until debt exclusions -- temporary tax increases allowed under Proposition 2 1/2 overrides -- pass in both towns.
Hoping to avoid that outcome, proponents rolled out the road show one more time.
School Committee Chairman Jonathan Deforge paged through project components, tracing the history of the effort and rehashing arguments for its ambitious checklist and optimistic timeline.
The plan is to upgrade the high school’s 54-year old athletic facilities and thus complete the $56 million high school renovation and addition project that wrapped up two years ago, in the process fixing all problems that plague the fields, described by students and coaches as substandard and unsafe.
But it’s a no-go if the debt exclusion process derails.
“The School Committee has said we would not proceed if the debt exclusion fails in one or both towns,” said Deforge, who serves on the Fields Committee.
Absent a “Plan B” -- which Shirley Selectman Debra Flagg said she’d like to see so safety issues are resolved -- Deforge said plans would go back to the drawing board.
That suited one school board member vying for a second shot at forwarding his own plan to fix the fields.
Jim Quinty, of Shirley, a six-year School Committee member who also served on the Fields Committee, cast the only “no” vote when the board endorsed the project.
On Thursday night he took the stage unannounced and, amid shouted challenges from the audience, launched into a pitch he’s made before.
It’s been noted that his plan lacks data, among other negatives, but Quinty has staunchly defended it, drawing on historic knowledge and long time connections with the schools and Ayer and Shirley sports.
On the other side, project proponents point to facts, figures and testimonials.
The recent speaking roster included the athletic director, the grounds manager and Superintendent Mary Malone, who noted district achievements, including a “strong, robust program” of academics and extra curriculars and the high school renovation project, completed under budget and on time.
But Malone also voiced concerns about student athletes injured due to field conditions, ills the proposed re-do aims to cure. “Let’s keep growing together ... we want to be the best!” she said.
Quinty insists his idea will fix the fields for less money. It involves re-orientation of the football field and bleachers, resurfacing with grass and artificial turf and moving baseball and softball programs off campus and trims $2 million from project costs, he said, also solving a problem the current plan does not: solar glare and its eye-damaging effects.
Subcommittee members Kevin Bresnahan and Doug Preston, both from Ayer, disputed such claims.
Bresnahan said the savings estimate was “fabricated” and that other points Quinty made were misleading.
The glare issue could be addressed in the design stage if debt exclusions the towns have chosen as their means to pay are successful, Bresnahan said. “Your goal is to derail this project.”
As for fielding baseball and softball teams off campus, that won’t work, he and others said, citing difficulties such as busing students and documented dearth of available facilities for them in the towns.
Preston said Quinty’s plan was vetted and vetoed by the subcommittee and shouldn’t be revisited now.
“We looked at Jim’s option ... he piped his plan at every meeting,” he said. “It doesn’t solve any problems.”
Dan Gleason, who represents Ayer on the committee and served on he Fields Committee, said Quinty’s plan was short on homework. Quinty never talked to the athletic director or grounds manager, for example, Gleason said.
Quinty said he’s confident that as experienced professionals they will work effectively no matter how the vote turns out.
“They’ll work with what they have,” he said. “This is up to the towns to decide.”
But the fields issue must be resolved, he said, and if the debt exclusion fails, he’ll offer his plan for reconsideration. “I’d ask (the committee) to take a hard look,” he said.
Michelle Granger, who represents Ayer on the School Committee, said she’d decline, despite her regard for Quinty and his family.
“I hate to see this be an issue,” she said. “If this comes back ... I can’t support your plan.”
Subcommittee member Murray Clark, of Ayer, said the project as presented was a one-time best shot at fixing everything, with cost estimates based on study, not speculation.
As Quinty continued to speak, Brenda Gleason walked out.
“Question and answer period is over,” she called out, prompting a few others to follow.
But most people stayed. Deforge called for decorum.
After Quinty left the stage, his wife, Beth Quinty, spoke up.
“His vote is not mine,” she said, but she deplored the flak he has faced.
“What’s upsetting to me was the lack of civil discourse in this process,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Her daughter tallied “kind versus unkind” comments, she said, apparently with negative results.
“It’s disgraceful,” she said.