Concerned About Costs, Some Schools Pull Plugs From Swimming Pools

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Students at Fillmore High School and local residents have enjoyed taking a dip in the school's pool on hot, sunny days for nearly 50 years. No more. The watery fun ended in 1999, when city officials told the school to close the facility because of health and safety violations.

"The bottom of the pool surface is very rough," explained Barbara Spieler, the director of business services for the 3,800-student Fillmore, Calif., school district, 55 miles north of Los Angeles in rural Ventura County. "The plumbing is also from the 1950s, so if that should break, we'd have to replace it all."

Other districts around the country are also pulling the plug on their swim facilities, especially aging pools like Fillmore High's that can be extremely costly to maintain and bring up to modern standards. Many districts that are feeling the current economic pinch say the money is better spent elsewhere.

Janet Seaman, the executive director of the American Association for Active Lifestyles and Fitness, a nonprofit organization based in Reston, Va., that sets rules on pool safety, said schools face an ocean of potential problems that make pool repair and maintenance an expensive venture.

Among the most common problems: cost cutting during initial construction that has shortened the life of the pool, design flaws, chemical damage to the pool's surface, poor filtration, and a lack of regular surface cleaning. Experts say average yearly maintenance costs run from $30,000 to $80,000.

"A well- maintained pool can last up to 20 years," Ms. Seaman said, "but I've seen some facilities that need to be resurfaced every two years."

And custodial care is often taken for granted, she said, noting that many school districts cannot afford to employ an experienced pool technician full time. The absence of such help leaves care of the facility to custodians and swim coaches who often lack time for the job and certification in pool maintenance.

"Schools tend not to have a [huge] inventory," Ms. Seaman said. "Nor are they inclined to have these kinds of big-ticket items [needed for pool maintenance]. And if they don't have someone experienced to predict problems, ... they wait until it breaks."

Maintenance Troubles

Fillmore officials say they simply can't afford to repair their outdoor pool. Maintenance alone had cost the school about $50,000 a year. A minor patch job to smooth the pool's rough surface would require $40,000 to $50,000, and administrators fear that make-do repair work could be risky.

If the pool's surface cracked under the pressure of resurfacing, they say, the entire structure would have to be replaced, at an estimated cost of $100,000 or more.

Ms. Spieler said city officials would like to buy the pool for $200,000. But, she said, a $15 annual parcel tax put before the voters in March 2000 that would have paid for yearly maintenance and allowed the city to dip into redevelopment funds to institute repairs failed by just 23 votes. City officials plan to put the issue before the voters again in November.

Hancock High School in St. Louis was in a similar bind two years ago, when its 35-year-old outdoor pool developed a cracked foundation. Assistant Superintendent Ed Stewart said the school already was spending $50,000 to $75,000 a year on maintenance. The repairs would have cost $300,000.

"It just wasn't practical. The pool was old and outdated, and we weren't using it," Mr. Stewart said, noting the school did not have a swim team. So Hancock High instead filled in the pool and built a new gymnasium on the site.

Even with the best of care, experts say, a heavily used pool eventually succumbs to daily wear and tear.

Chris Urban, an architect with Legat Architects in Waukegan, Ill., a company hired by the 2,500-student Barrington High School to replace its pool, said even the weight of the water a pool contains creates pressure on its walls. The additional weight of many thrashing swimmers, he said, makes for a tremendous amount of water slamming into a pool's walls every day. That eventually can lead to cracks if the pool isn't designed properly.

Illinois' 8,500-student Barrington district, in suburban Chicago, is spending $4.8 million that taxpayers approved in a November 2000 referendum to renovate its 1970s indoor facility. The new swim facility is expected to open in the fall in time for team competition.

Many districts that have swim facilities say it can be difficult to reduce expenses, even in tight economic times, because pools must meet certain safety standards, and skimping on maintenance now can be costly down the road.

Ron Stierman, the director of facilities at South High School in Waukesha, Wis., said that even with $840,000 supplied from a $24.4 million referendum approved by voters in April 2001, the district still falls short of being able to replace its 45- year-old pool with a state-of-the-art facility that could be used by both students and the community.

A local swim club has petitioned the district, asking for time to raise an additional $4 million to pay for still-needed upgrades.

Vol. 21, Issue 38, Page 10

Published in Print: May 29, 2002, as Concerned About Costs, Some Schools Pull Plugs From Swimming Pools
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