Voters in Ayer, Shirley Asked to Fund School Athletic Fields
By Scott Shurtleff
AYER -- The Ayer-Shirley Regional High School outdoor athletic facility is 54 years old and is, according to school administrators, in dire need of a facelift.
Both towns will face a two-pronged referendum on the issue on Oct. 6. Voters will be asked to approve a plan, and approve a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion to finance the $7.1 million project to revamp the fields.
During a public event on Thursday night, School Committee member Dan Gleason led a guided tour through the existing 5-acre labyrinth of disconnected soccer, baseball and football fields.
Committee Chairman Jonathan Deforge said the age of the facilities, growth of population, and student safety are primary drivers of the plan.
“The fields are 54 years old,” he said. “And in 1964, soccer wasn’t even a consideration when laying out the area for athletics.”
Currently, soccer pitches overlay all the other fields, causing overuse. Soccer is far and away the most popular sport for high school and junior high school athletes with more than 120 players, officials said.
The proposal calls for a multi-use artificial turf field.
“If we size it for soccer, we can play any other sport on it,” said Gleason. “Soccer has the largest field so we can line it for football, field hockey or lacrosse.”
Running around the perimeter of the new football field, according to the plan, will be a modernized version of rubberized running track, including an eight-lane straightaway.
Only a few of the more than 60 residents at the Thursday night meeting spoke out against the plan. Some wanted to know what their money will buy.
“New lights, new restrooms, dugouts, practice fields and improved conditions on the baseball and softball diamonds,” Gleason explained.
He added that the new plan calls for the arena to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, which it currently does not. New bleachers, two-sided for both football and baseball, are also drawn in.
“Fifty-four years of soil erosion has exposed rocks and caused sinkholes all over the playing surfaces,” said Steve Kendall, high school athletic director. “The track is torn and the jumping runways are too close to the football field.”
The safety issues and general age of the fields are supported by the need to “future proof” the school. The district has seen a steady uptick in population and Gleason believes that trend will continue.
Opponents say tax dollars would be better spent repairing the district’s two elementary schools, Page Hilltop School, in Ayer, and Lura A. White School in Shirley. Deforge assuaged that concern by explaining that with interior projects for schools, state funding is available.
“Not so for upgrades and improvements to conditions outdoors,” he said.
That is why the town is being urged by school administrators to approve the measure.
The district estimates the debt exclusion will temporarily increase taxes $75 per year for owners of an average single-family home in Ayer, and about $113 for the average single-family home in Shirley.
“I’m looking at the ADA aspect of it,” said Ayer parent Amy Gebru, who attended the information session.
She has one child who is a recent graduate of the system, another who plays middle school sports and a third with a disability.
“I’m leaning toward voting for it but I want to learn more about it,” she said.