For more than a month now followers of this blog and of the school division have been embroiled in a debate over whether a pool should be part of the 12th high school. BOCS and members of the county parks and recreation department are rumored to be in talks with the school division about the planning and funding for the pool, talks which have reportedly happened without the knowledge of my BOCS member or the school board. Prince William County’s Chief Executive was quoted as expressing her support for the school pool because “it wouldn’t cost the county anything”. Local blogs have heated up with debates about the benefits of the pool versus concerns that the cost of the pool’s debt service and operations will take money away from classrooms and students.
It seems to me that when it comes to the school pool, we’re all clueless. That’s probably because the school division doesn’t have any specific plans, at least not yet, and any plans it has haven’t been shared with the public or school board. Remember, until February the school division hadn’t even admitted to the public that it wanted to include a pool in the 12th high school.
I think we’re all pretty much on the same page. It think it serves our political leaders for us to think we’re on different sides of the debate so that we fight amongst ourselves instead of focusing our ire at them. So let’s talk about the pool and see if we can’t find some common ground.
There is no doubt in my mind that we citizens of Prince William County need more indoor pools that are available year round. We only have 3 county facilities with indoor pools and those are inadequate to meet our needs. There are no county run county recreation facilities with pools west of Route 234. None. I can’t think of a single person I’ve met who believes PWC county park and recreation facilities are adequate. Clearly the county has dropped the ball in providing residents with pools and recreation facilities.
The 12th high school is probably a good location for such a pool as it’s about as close to the middle of the county as you can possibly get. I think the debate about whether a pool is needed is pretty much settled as most of us would agree that we need additional year round swimming facilities in the county.
The debate, at least from what I’ve observed, is really about whether the pool should be a county thing or a school division thing.
It’s the Same Pot of Money
As I’m sure someone will remind me, it’s all the same pot of money and since it will be county taxpayers paying for the pool no matter what, responsibility doesn’t matter. Except that it does matter.
The county has an agreement with the school division to provide it with 56.75% of taxes received for school operations. That money is used by the school division to pay debt service on the debt it has incurred and to operate the public schools. The debt service and operating costs associated with a pool would come from the 56.75% of tax receipts the school division receives. That means that money that would otherwise have been spent on schools and classrooms would have to be funneled to pool debt service and operations.
So which pot the money comes from mattes very much.
Determining which pot depends in large part on what type of pool is built and what services or programs are offered at the pool.
Pot A or Pot B?
If the county is responsible for the pool, even if it shares a structure with the 12th high school, then the county will run the pool, schedule its use, provide for its operations, and pay the debt service on the pool. A county pool would be designed to meet the needs of county residents, not just swim teams. The county could offer classes throughout the day and high school swim teams would book lane times just like they do at Chinn or Freedom now. Because the pool would be designed to meet the needs of the community in general, it would probably be on the shallower side, say 3 – 5 feet deep, would be kept somewhat warm, and would be ADA accessible. That way families, small children, senior citizens, and handicapped individuals could safely use the pool.
In their testimony before the school board many citizens have noted the benefits of an indoor pool that’s available year round. Those benefits include swim classes for babies through Aqua Tots type classes, exercise and fitness for senior citizens, aquatic aerobics, rehabilitation for people with injuries, hydro-therapy for handicapped individuals, and providing swim lanes year round for adults and swim clubs. A county run pool would meet the needs they’ve defined.
If the school division is responsible for the pool then the school division will run the pool, schedule its use, provide for its operations, and pay the debt service for it. If the school division were to provide a pool then the pool would be designed to meet the needs of high school competition level swim teams, just like the football fields and basketball courts are designed to meet the needs of high school competition level football and basketball teams. That means it would be 50 meters long and 7 feet deep. It would be kept at 65 – 70 degrees because cold pools are faster pools. It would have specially designed gutters to reduce the wave that slows the lanes against the wall. It would have in water timers and starting blocks.
It would not be a recreation pool. No one would put a class of babies in a 7ft deep 70 degree pool. No one would put a handicapped person in a 7ft deep 70 degree pool. Only people who are strong swimmers would be able to safely use the pool.
If the school division manages the pool, their priority isn’t going to be on aqua babies swim classes or aquatic aerobics. Their priority will be swim team practice and swim lessons for public school students during gym, assuming they decide to provide lessons as part of the physical education program. Public access to the pool would be limited during school hours.
What does the county need more – a pool run by the public school system for swim teams with limited community access or a pool run by the parks department for the community as a whole that’s open to the public from 6 am to 11 pm?
Based on the comments supporters of the pool have provided, it is evident to me that there is a need for an additional year round indoor pool in the county – a pool which is designed and operated to meet the needs of the entire county. To me that means the pool should be a county pool and the entire cost of the pool, debt service and operations, should be provided by the county through parks and recreation.
One Other Thing About the Pool’s Projected Cost and Revenues
The school division has estimated that the cost to build the school pool will be $10,530,000. That estimate was provided by Dave Cline, Associate Superintendent of Finance and Accounting for PWCS, through Lillie Jessie in response to a citizen’s questions about the cost of the pool. Mr Cline’s comment was posted by the citizen on the school division’s Budget Comment Page on facebook. The question about the pool’s cost was posted to that page on Febrauary 22, 2013 with Mr Cline’s comment posted on March 4, 2013.
The debt service on $10.53 million, assuming a 5% interest rate, is around $588,000 a year. Operating costs will run from $100,000 – $250,000 a year, or more, based on Arlington county’s example. That’s puts the annual cost of the school pool, very roughly, at $688,000 to $838,000.
The pool could be open to the public and revenue from usage fees could offset the operating costs. If PWC Parks and Rec operates the pool it will probably receive fees that are slightly less than those received by the Chinn center. Even with a play pool and swim lanes, the Chinn center doesn’t make a profit.
Fee revenues will be significantly lower if the school division operates the pool and are unlikely to cover the operating costs and / or debt service. Arlington County operates pools in three of its high schools. They’ve done so for over 30 years. The pools are open to the public for limited hours each day, generally before and after school hours. The fees they receive from the public for using the pool cover less than half the operating costs of their pools and none of the debt service. While PWC may be able to operate the pool less expensively than Arlington because our labor costs are lower, it is unlikely that the fees received from the public would cover the full cost of the pool and its debt service.