By Jenny Neyman
On paper, closing the Skyview pool makes financial sense.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is facing a projected shortfall of at least $3.4 million next year, or as much as about $4.6 million factoring in costs of salary increases and depending on how state and borough funding shakes out. The annual cost of maintaining the pool is about $170,000, with another $80,000 scheduled to be spent this summer on a filter overhaul.
Kenai only has one pool. Soldotna has two. With the upcoming reconfiguration of Soldotna-area schools, Skyview will become the area’s middle school. Currently, students take swimming in high school.
With the majority of the district’s budget allocated to pay personnel, it’s tough to find places to cut that don’t involve teachers and other staff. The pool is used by the community as well as the school, but the district’s first priority is to its students.
“The pool is a positive place, and it’s an unfortunate situation we’re placed in, but we’re charged with doing what we can for children, not citizens who want to swim laps, so we’re doing what we can with the kids in mind. We’re not required to teach swimming — we’d love to, but we’re not mandated to. And the bottom line is there are two pools within a two-mile area and we can meet our mission’s goals with the kids at the (Soldotna High School) pool,” said Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent.
But to those who want to keep the pool open, doing so makes sense apart from budgets, as they see value beyond just dollars and cents.
“Kids need to learn how to swim and SoHi pool can’t accommodate all the swim lesson needs that we have here. I know people who currently drive to Homer to use the pool because the ones here are closed on weekends. Also, Skyview is used by many for rehab purposes, and so many people benefit from low-impact exercise. And swimming is such an important aerobic activity for your heart,” said Patty Moran, of Soldotna. “We need to be promoting healthy communities here on the peninsula. Taking away one of our huge resources for that is really unthinkable. Many people’s lives will be negatively impacted by the loss of that pool. It makes no sense at all,” she said.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is holding public budget meetings at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 18 in the Seward High School library, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Soldotna High School library and 5:30 p.m. Feb. 25 in the Homer High School library. Anyone interested is encouraged to attend one of the meetings. For more information, contact Lassie Nelson at 714-8838.
Drain on resources
With an overall expenditure budget in the neighborhood of $160 million, the Skyview pool, costing about $170,000 a year, is a mere drop in the bucket of the district’s budget. But when the budget is projected to be in the red, as it is for fiscal year 2015 unless expenses are cut or additional funding comes from the state or Kenai Peninsula Borough, the pool is a drop that could be wiped away without evaporating teaching positions or programs central to academics. As such, the district is entertaining closure.
“It’s not a done deal until the budget gets approved in April, but on the current budget it is not to be funded in 2015,” Atwater said.
Flood of support
A vocal contingent of pool users want to see the cut reversed, sending messages of support to the district and speaking up to the KPBSD Board of Education at its meeting Monday evening at the George A. Navarre Borough Building in Soldotna.
They enumerated the many uses the pool serves in the community, such as swimming for fitness.
Peggy Larson, of Soldotna, swims five times a week for exercise, as several medical conditions make her unable to do impact activities.
“I have been swimming for almost two years now and because of that I have been healthier these past two years than I have been in my life,” she said. “… Water is the only thing I can do and lap swimming is saving my life, it’s making me healthy.”
Swimming is good exercise, and sometimes the only available form of exercise, for people with a myriad of challenges, such as bad knees, arthritis or those recovering from surgery or injury. Krys Williams, of Kasilof, swam at Skyview after she broke her tibia and fibula, and dislocated her ankle.
“After I completed my physical therapy, I continued with aquatic therapy, recommended by my doctor,” she said. “It made exercise easier, less painful and reduced the pressure on my weight-bearing joints.”
The pool is used by the Special Olympics program, and Laura McIndoe, an intensive needs teacher at Soldotna Middle, takes her students to Skyview to swim because it’s less crowded and more accessible for people with disabilities than the SoHi pool, she said.
The Skyview pool has hosted the Tri the Kenai Triathlon since its inception three years ago, and many local triathletes train at Skyview.
“We had roughly 220 racers last year with 30 on teams and about 50 kids. I know many tri racers train at Skyview pool because that’s where I train for my tris. Unless something like a miracle happens, I think (the 2014 event on June 8) will be the last Tri the Kenai swim at the Skyview pool,” said Tony Oliver, event director.
Skyview also hosts a SwimAmerica learn-to-swim program for kids, and “master” swim — fitness swimming for adults.
“It would have an impact on the SwimAmerica program because it is in the afternoon when the Kenai and Soldotna pools have teen programming, and the master swim and water aerobics programs that have been in place since the ’90s would likely cease to exist unless the other two pools work together to accommodate them with more time for programming,” said Joanne Wainwright, a swim instructor.
Having venues like Skyview and the SwimAmerica program for kids to learn to swim was of particular importance to several speakers Monday.
“I think kids here are like kids anywhere and they are tempted by the water and they love the water and they go in it,” said Mary Ellen Summer, of Soldotna. “We have lost students here in water accidents. We’ve also had a student save her sister and a friend and lose her father in an accident. Water safety is incredibly important and we have wonderful facilities here for that. I think the earlier we teach a child to swim, the better off the whole community is.”
Jennifer Lancaster-Jackson, of Soldotna, took swimming in ninth grade at SoHi, but said she wished she’d had swimming earlier, before the self-consciousness of high school set in.
“I did not learn how to swim in that class. I don’t know how I passed it. No idea,” she said. She didn’t learn to swim until she was an adult and her daughter taught her, followed by taking lessons. “I would have rather learned when I younger, not so embarrassed in high school.”
Jessica Jackson, lifeguard at Skyview and a swim instructor, said that the high school unit on swimming doesn’t offer enough one-on-one time to teach anyone to swim if they don’t already know how, making youth swimming opportunities all the more important.
“I can’t teach anybody in this room to swim in 30 minutes. I can technique you, I can give you the best basic swimming that there is, but I can’t teach you. I can’t teach you to save your life, I can’t give you survival skills, I can’t teach you how to save someone else, which is important in these parts,” Jackson said.
The school board and administration were asked by several speakers to move swimming from high school to middle school.
“This would provide challenges, more activities and a healthy outlet for these special ages — and you know that they need healthy outlets,” said Carolyn Cannava, retired principal of Soldotna Elementary School and former school board member. “This could prepare students for greater interest in swimming and would free up high schoolers for another elective.”
If swimming continues to be done in ninth grade, that will mean Soldotna freshmen will need to walk back and forth from the current Soldotna Middle School, which will house the ninth grade next year, and the pool at SoHi.
“In an all-important time when classroom time is so essential, we’re going to spend 20 minutes walking these guys over to a pool when we could take this over in the middle school?” said Matt Fischer, a physical education teacher at Soldotna Middle.
Several ideas for funding the pool have been floated, and the next few months of the budget process will tell whether any sink or swim.
“I’m looking for the board to take a creative approach to budget challenges and this is an opportunity for that. Rather than closing it, they should be looking at building programs around it,” Cannava said. “They could also look into grants to keep it funded.”
One idea is to fund the Skyview pool — or possibly all school pools — through property taxes, such as through the establishment of a service area as is done with the Nikiski pool.
Jesse James, of Soldotna, while not speaking to the service area idea, said that the district should recognize a responsibility as a partner with the community.
“We as taxpayers, that’s what we want to do is support the schools and have the best schools that we can have,” he said. “… I believe that this community supports the school district a lot, but I want to see the superintendent and the school district also try to support the public here.”
Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson, a former school board member, empathized with the board on the difficulty of making budget cuts, but urged the board to seek funding opportunities rather than simply draining the pool.
“I would encourage you to think about this as a community resource and see if we can’t work together to find some way to locate funds and a creative way to keep that pool open,” he said.
Perhaps the city of Soldotna could pitch in, recognizing the pool as a valuable community resource. (Anderson clarified that he was not speaking on behalf of the city.) While the borough does already help fund the district, that money is at the discretion of the district to spend, so maybe the borough could kick in a separate appropriation to fund the pool, Anderson said.
He also suggested raising rates at all the school pools to boost revenue.
“Fees should be increased to be more realistic about what it actually costs to run that pool. And I think if that were done around all of our pools then we might be able to generate enough revenues to at least mitigate some of the costs that exist,” Anderson said.
Some of the speakers Monday said they’d pay more for use of the pool, if that’s what it takes to keep it open.
“I just think there’s got to be a way that all of us can use it. And if we have to pay a little bit more, we have to pay a little bit more,” said Theresa Lusby, of Kasilof.
Luke Baumer, Skyview pool director, said he can confirm the support the pool receives from its patrons.
“The community here has supported that pool for years. They’re the reason that pool is still running,” he said. “I know exactly how much the pool is losing, I know how much the pool is gaining. The majority of that money that is being gained is from the community.”
And that’s going to have to be the case going forward, if the pool is to remain open, Atwater said.
“Whatever it is, the pushback to not close is coming from the community, so the solution needs to come from them,” he said.
Baumer asks that the district keep the pool open in the meantime as solutions are sought.
“Give the pool and the facility some time to adapt to this new change you guys are creating for the middle school and see if we can’t work something out,” he said.
No action was taken about the pool at Monday’s meeting. School board President Joe Arness said that the matter will be considered.
“I can assure you there is no one sitting at this table that wants to close Skyview pool. But we have a responsibility to take a look at money coming in and money going out and making decisions related to that. And that we will do over the course of the next two or three months, depending on what the borough and the state do (regarding district funding),” he said. “… There will be a lot more conversation on this topic over the course of the next 60, 90 days. And, yes, we are trying very hard to find alternative ways of financing that operation. So far nothing has turned up, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.
Reporter Joseph Robertia contributed to this story.