Misleading the Public

On Wednesday night the PWC School board will vote to approve the bids for building the 12th high school.  I suspect the votes will go in favor of the school plus the pool. Chairman Johns, Dr Otaigbe, Mrs Jessie, and Mrs Williams have all said they strongly support the pool.  Mrs Covington says she’s undecided, but has indicated her support for the pool in the past.  Mr Trenum, Mrs Bell, and Mrs Satterwhite are opposed to the pool.

By now most of you know the issues about the pool.  Many folks have been shocked at the secrecy within the school system and the disdain certain employees appear to have for the public and elected officials.  From the pool to the Lynn family cemetery and moving their graves, this school and the pool has been an example of how not to do things.

Other folks are covering the Lynn family cemetery, so I won’t repeat those issues.  The school division’s behavior in this regard has been, in my opinion, reprehensible.

The pool, and the runaround about it, is another story.  I haven’t been shocked by the secrecy, twisted logic, changing stories, and attitudes because I stared this blog during the math wars.  What folks are shocked by in this case is what I’ve seen from PWCS time and time again.

PWCS begrudgingly admitted that the pool would be included in the school in February of this year and then, only after a citizen exposed it in comments before the school board.  Since then the school division has been engaged in a multi-tiered effort to dupe the public about the pool, how much it will cost, and what services it will provide.  Chief among those efforts are the following:

The pool will be paid for with bonds so it won’t cost anything.  

I’ve actually heard this several times from a school Principal, high school and middle school Guidance Counselors, and teachers.  I’m shocked every time I hear it.

Debt isn’t free.  Just like we all have to pay off our mortgages, car notes, and student loans, PWCS has to pay off its debt.  They pay it over 20 years and the payment includes interest.  The payment is called debt service expense and you can find the budget for it in the PWCS budget.  The school pool is expected to have debt service expense of about $722,000, on average, a year, for the next 20 years.  On average means it will cost more than $722,000 in the first 10 years and less than $722,000 in the last 10 years.

State and federal money can’t be used to pay for debt service expense.  The money to pay debt service expense comes almost entirely from the school division’s share of local property tax receipts.  This year PWCS will pay about $75 million in debt service expense; that’s about 16% of what the school division receives from the county and about $872 per student.  That is expected to go up significantly in coming years as PWCS issues more debt than it retires.

Local property tax receipts are used to pay for school operations and debt service expense. As the school division’s debt service expense increases, the amount of money available for school operations will decrease.  No matter how you look at, the school pool will reduce the amount of money available for school operations.

The pool will pay for itself.  

In testimony at the joint school board / BOCs meeting in August of this year, Dave Cline stated that the school division expected the pool would recoup 80% of it’s operating costs from user fees and none of its debt service costs.  Mr Cline said that he expected the pool would cost the school system, net of user fees, about $1 million a year.

$1 million a year isn’t free.  It also doesn’t include the cost of any programs that might be provided at the school pool, like swimming lessons for students.

The pool will recoup about 80% of its operating costs.

In preparing the cost and revenue projections for the school pool, school division staff visited the Freedom Center, The Chinn Aquatics and Fitness Center, QDD, and Arlington County public schools to review their operations.  They selected Chinn as the model they believe PWCS will follow, though they have not explained why.  Chinn is a county run recreation center.  It is open to the public all day and the pool almost breaks even from user fees.

The pool at the 12th high school will be in a school and run by the school system.  PWCS says providing swimming lessons to students to prevent drowning is one of the primary reasons they believe the pool is necessary.  As Chairman Johns noted during the August meeting, those lessons would be during the instructional day and the pool would have to be closed to the public when students are there for lessons.

Arlington County is the only school system in this area that provides pools in their high schools.  In addition to providing recreation opportunities for county residents, APS provides swimming lessons for their students as part of their instructional program.  Arlington has pools in 3 of their high schools.  All three pools are closed during the school day so that students can take lessons.  Arlington recoups roughly 46% of their pool operating costs from public user fees (see page 394 of the APS’ 2014 budget).  Debt service expense isn’t factored in their aquatics budget.

PWCS thinks it can recoup about 80% of the pool’s operating costs from user fees but none of the debt service expenses, based on the model provided by the Chinn Recreation Center.  They believe this despite having to close the pool during the instructional day so that students can take swimming lessons.  APS, which closes its pools during the day, just like PWCS will if it provides swimming lessons to students, recoups about 46% of its pool operating costs.

Thus far PWCS has not explained why they believe the Chinn model is more “like” their model than the APS model.  Thus far PWCS has not explained why they believe they will be able to recoup 80% of operating costs from their pool when Arlington, whose model seems much more like the model PWCS will follow, has been unable to exceed 50% in the more than 40 years they’ve been operating pools in their schools.

PWCS could take in 80%, or more, in user fees from the pool if the pool was open to the public during the instructional day, but the pool can’t be open for public use during the day if PWCS is going to provide swimming lessons to students.   Either PWCS has no intention of providing swimming lessons to students as part of their instructional program or the 80% recapture is intentionally overstated, because both can’t be true.  

Swimming lessons for students.

Until August of this year no school board member or employee of PWCS had ever said one word about providing swimming lessons to students.  Nor had a single citizen. The need for swimming lessons hasn’t been on a public referendum or even been asked in one of the many satisfaction survey’s we take.  Despite having space for lessons at three indoor county run pools during the day, PWCS had never expressed the desire or intent to develop a swimming program for students.

Yet, once public pressure against the pool began, PWCS suddenly felt it absolutely vital that students be provided swimming lessons as part of their core instructional program.  Dr Otaigbe spoke quite forcefully about it at the August meeting, as did Mrs Jessie.

With the vote set for 3 days from now, one would think that PWCS would have an idea of what the program would look like.  Arlington has about 23,000 students in their public school system and three pools with which to provide them lessons.  PWC has about 84,000 students in their public school system and, once the 12th high school and pool are built, will have 1 pool with which to provide them lessons.

The swimming lesson program is one of the primary justifications for the school pool.  The pool will be approved in 3 days time, so I’d expect PWCS to have some sort of plan to present.  Maybe not exact details, but I’d expect that they’d have a clue what grade levels they think should be provided lessons, what types of lessons should be provided, how long the lessons would last and how frequent they’d be held, and how many children they could cycle through the facility in any 6 hour instructional day.  With 84,000 students in one facility and only 6 hours available, scheduling lessons for all students will be one of the biggest challenges.

I have received a copy of an email that Dave Cline sent to a school board member about the proposed swimming instructional program.  In the email Mr Cline’s states the following:

At the December 4 School Board meeting, you requested information regarding the 12th High School pool budget. Specifically, you asked to see the actual costs (operational costs) including an estimate of the cost of: curriculum, teachers, transportation for the 4th and 5th graders, and supplies. 

During the winter of 2012 and spring of 2013, as has been reported to the School Board, staff visited aquatics center operations at Arlington County Schools, the Chinn Aquatics Center, and the Freedom Center. (And later the QDD pool in Manassas City.) Based upon the information gathered from these visits and discussion with the staff from these organizations, PWCS projected the operational cost at approximately $800,000 annually. In addition, the typical recapture rates for such pools range from 70% to 100%. This information was provided to the School Board at the presentation on June 5, 2013, and to the Joint School Board BOCS meeting regarding the Aquatics Center on August 6, 2013. On both occasions it was stated that the operational costs were an estimate and that exact budgets would not be developed until such time as the aquatics center was or was not approved and a decision was made regarding the management of the facility.

 The swim curriculum will be developed by PWCS teachers in concert with supervisors from Student Learning. Curriculum development funds are already imbedded in the school budget. No additional funding is provided.

We have not determined which elementary grade level(s) will receive swim lessons. A cost for transportation would be determined once such a program is developed and proposed. This approach is consistent with the development and implementation of CTE programs, most recently for the HVAC program in conjunction with NOVA, and for the Culinary Arts programs at both Patriot and Potomac High Schools.

Special Needs assistants will travel with any Special Needs student and pool-trained staff will assist Special Needs students utilizing the Chinn Aquatics Center model. The aquatics center will have required special needs lifts. Adult swim diapers would be needed as supplies. Washable and reusable adult swim diapers from Theraquatics.com cost $19.95 each. Total costs will be determined by the number of students utilizing the facility. Funding will be provided by the Office of Special Education.

Swim team practice times, depending upon facility, have starting times ranging from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.

I appreciate your concern for additional details regarding the operations of the proposed aquatics center. Again, in summary, we expect operating costs of approximately $800K, with recapture of 70% to 100% of those costs.”

PWCS has no plan for swimming lessons for students and won’t begin developing them until after the school pool is approved.  School board members are expected to vote whether to approve a school operated pool and swimming instructional program, but have no clue how much either will cost or whether the instructional program is even feasible given the number of students attending  PWCS.

In short, the school pool is going to cost $1 million, or more, each year and will reduce the amount of money available for schools and teachers.  Swimming lessons for students will increase that cost, may or may not be provided, and may not be feasible, but no feasibility or cost projections have been prepared.

I’ve not been a fan of the school pool since I first learned of it.  To be honest, at first I thought it was a joke.  With class sizes as large as they are and schools going without things they need for day to day instruction, I thought there was no way PWCS would consider putting a pool in a school.  I was wrong.  I still don’t understand why so many school board members support the school pool.

Mrs Jessie talks about the vital need for teacher professional development.  She’s right.  Improving the educational opportunities for our children starts by ensuring that we have enough teachers, that they’re paid well, and that they have adequate professional development opportunities.  Taking $1 million away from the operating budget for the school pool means there will be less available for professional development.

Mrs Covington is everyone’s friend.  Saying she’s the school system’s grandmother seems ageist, but she’s the person you go to when you want to know the history of the school system and how we’ve done things in the past.  She’s the person who will help you figure out where you need to go when you need help.  Nine times out of ten, she’s been there and done that before.  Taking $1 million away from the operating budget for the school pool means central office and school staff will have to do even more with even less.  Considering how overworked they are now, I’m not sure they can do more.

Dr Otaigbe is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met.  He has a vision for what we can, and should, strive to be.  I always feel like there’s so much more I should be doing when I read his blog and listen to him speak.  At one of the joint BOCS / School board meetings, Dr Otaigbe said the school division’s budget was so tight that we couldn’t squeeze anything more out of the pennies we had.    He’s absolutely correct.  I served on one of the much maligned budget committees.  The school division’s needs far exceed our budget and lots of vital things are simply going undone.  Taking $1 million away from the operating budget for the school pool means there will be even less available.  I can’t help but wonder how he can support the school pool when he knows that nothing more can be squeezed from the school division’s pennies.

Mrs Williams is the new kid on the block.   Fresh faces are good in public board because they tend to ask questions about things we take for granted or have forgotten.  They look at things differently and without the cynicism that creeps in over time.  I’m not sure what her priorities will be.  I can’t imagine having to take a vote like this so soon after being elected.  I expect she sees how tight things are at the schools in her district.  I’m sure she’s heard from teachers in those schools about the desperate need for paper and pencils and basic supplies.  I’m sure she’s heard about class sizes and how difficult it is for children to learn when there’s just no time for individual attention.    Taking $1 million away from the operating budget for the school pool means there will be less money for schools and classrooms.  It’s $1 million that won’t be going towards reducing class sizes.

Chairman Johns is the mediator; he makes sure everyone has a chance to speak their mind and say their piece.  Milt knows how hard it is to tell teachers there’s no money for raises this year and how difficult it is to find the money for school operations.  He knows how hard it is to persuade the BOCS to give us the money they promised and how difficult it is to convince our state delegates to fight for more funding for our schools.  I can’t help but wonder how much more difficult that job will be once this pool is approved.

How can our elected officials moan about tight budgets and beg the state for more money, while at the same time approving a pool that will cost $1 million a year, or more?  How can we provide additional professional development opportunities for our teachers if we struggle to pay for it now and will have $1 million less after the school pool is approved?  If we can afford $1 million or more a year for a pool, then why can’t we afford to hire more teachers or give our teachers raises or provide the supplies and materials our schools need?

I hope every school board member considers these things before they vote for the pool.  I’m not sure it will make a difference, but I suspect that many people in this county will have a hard time accepting a tax increase to reduce class sizes if the school board approves spending $1 million or more a year on a pool.


3 Responses to “Misleading the Public”

  1. John Galt Says:

    This vote is already decided 5-3 for the pool with Satterwhite, Bell, and Trenum against. It’s been politically “greased” already by the PWCS Chairman and those Board members who will vote for the pool. What’s not fully disclosed to date is that this will only be the first HS pool. All subsequent High Schools in PWCS will include aquatic centers! Isn’t that great?! And how to pay for it? Easy, BOCS Chairman Corey Stewart’s fully engaged in the issue and will ensure PW County gets huge tax increases to fund this nightmare. It’s a shame we don’t have elected officials who put education above recreation. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, then we have living proof of that concept in action – electing the same PWCS officials over and over again is what’s led us to the educational priority of…high school aquatic centers. They ought to be ashamed!

  2. Ed Says:

    I hate to repeat myself but it’s next to a landfill and methane generation plant! They’ll be lucky to recoup 10%.
    We need to get these losers voted out of office before they facilitate any more harm to our children.

  3. Chuck McCoy Says:

    I remain in total disbelief, that a few of our elected PWC officials actually believe that a pool is a priority for our county. Each of these representatives that are in support of this unrealistic proposal, should revisit Business 101; with particular focus on Leadership Decision Making. Unfortunately it has become painfully clear that something about this entire situation has signs of concealment and a distortion of the truth.
    Unlike others, I take comfort and remain confident in my school board representative. She continues to have her priorities in line, remains forward thinking and is focused on the continued success and development of our students and teachers.

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