In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, school-maintained swimming pools could be sapping valuable education resources or saving lives, depending on who is talking about the facilities.
During a Tuesday meeting on the pools, Kenai Peninsula Board of Education members heard a proposal to cut costs by centralizing management of the district’s pools which include facilities in Seldovia, Ninilchik, Kenai, Soldotna, Homer and Seward.
Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones told board members that the pools were consistently falling short of budget goals — but that it could be a necessary expense.
“That $769,000 deficit that you see there, what’s within that deficit is the fact that … it’s an unwritten rule in schools that you’re going to have a deficit associated with your pools if you’re going to teach kids to swim,” Jones said. “You’re not going to have kids drowning. So, if we say ‘it’s costing us money, we’re going to shut our pools down. We’re not going to teach them to swim and have them drown.’ Now we’ve put a price on kids.”
Jones said the district needed to look at the role of its swimming pools in schools and in the surrounding communities.
“It’s hard to put a specific value on a pool and it’s hard to put a specific value on a gym and it’s hard to say as a school district because when you look at the buildings that we provide the communities — we’re also providing a value to those communities to provide an opportunity for the members of the community to use those to stay healthy and keep our kids fit and active.”
It is the second time in recent years that the district has considered ways to reduce the expense of maintaining its pools.
During its 2013-14 budget planning process, nearly $200,000 for the yearly operation of the Skyview High School pool was eliminated from the budget, with the district facing a $4.5 million deficit.
Reaction from the surrounding community was immediate. More than 200 people signed a petition to keep the facility open and the Soldotna City Council voted to spend $50,000 toward that goal. Ultimately, funding was restored, but some Board of Education members said the issue needs to be considered again as the district faces decreasing enrollment and increasingly large budget deficits.
“We believe that if we looked at a centralized manager and coordinated schedules and looked at those things, we probably think we could do it more efficiently,” Jones said.
Some benefits to centralized management could be a schedule that fits community use and needs better than the current schedules which are set by and tailored to each school individually.
“Right now, open swim is determined on each pool level. They may do it at the same time, they may do it at different times. If we had a district view of open swim we probably should have one pool do it in the morning, one pool do it in the evening. Currently we’re not very efficient in how we do that,” Jones said.
Another issue pools face is staffing of lifeguards. Jones said individual school pool managers handle staffing and often compete for lifeguards.
Several community members and school principals sat in the audience as the board mulled over alternative funding options and the value of the pools to the students and the surrounding towns.
Freddie Billingslea said the Skyview Pool was heavily utilized and she didn’t want to see the board consider closing it again.
“I’ve been using the Skyview pool ever since it was open, close to 25 years or something like that, and I’ve graduated in my physical activities from mountain climbing to cross-country skiing to the pool. That’s the life for me now and I would hate to see it go,” Billingslea said.
She suggested that the district raise prices slightly, or consider having school personnel — who currently use the facilities free of charge — pay as well.
Board member Dan Castimore said the schools that had pools got more money than those without and the pools were draining resources that could be used to fund teachers.
“I’m not suggesting we close (the pools). But, we’re going to cut teachers this year. We’re going to cut quite a few teachers this year,” Castimore said. “So are we going to cut teachers and then we’re going to keep the pools open? My kid gets a worse education because now we’ve eliminated all of these teachers. At some point we have to say that recreation is not more important than teachers in the classroom and I think we’re missing that.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.