Members of the St. Helena school board voted Thursday to postpone a decision on the design of the new high school pool until February.
Three members of the public criticized a staff recommendation that the board approve a 30-meter-by-25-yard pool and adjacent bathhouse, with an estimated cost of $3.6 million, rather than a 50-meter-by-25-yard pool, estimated at $6.1 million. Both options are significantly larger than the current pool.
The estimate for a 30-meter pool exceeds the $3.5 million pool budget contained in the Measure C bond that voters approved in November, but Superintendent Bill McGuire said district officials should be able to bring the price down once the project is put out to bid. He recommended that the board approve the 30-meter option, which had also been endorsed by two district committees along with a similar 34-meter-by-25-yard alternative.
However, a few local swimmers questioned the district’s cost estimates, accused the officials of a lack of transparency, and asked why there was such a rush to approve a plan that they said hadn’t been vetted properly by swimmers.
“I don’t trust these numbers,” said Deer Park resident Rob Harrison, alleging that cost estimates mysteriously jumped after voters passed Measure C. He said a 50-meter “legacy pool” would be much more attractive to local swimmers, and would allow the pool to host multiple activities simultaneously.
Harrison said Measure C “passed by 215 votes, with many of the ‘yes’ votes coming from the swimming community. And yet we do not feel that our voice is being heard.”
“This has been very hurried, with tough decisions made in very little time,” added Vicki Serianni of St. Helena. “It won’t take much time to get more clear-cut numbers.”
Greg Medici, the district’s chief business official, said that aside from the initial cost, a 50-meter pool would be more expensive for the district to operate and maintain — more than $200,000 per year, compared with $130,000 for a 30-meter pool. It would also mean a smaller deck and the loss of a few parking spaces.
Yet John Simons of St. Helena, who swam professionally, called the 50-meter pool “the more community-minded option,” and said the district needs to take another look at operating costs compared with potential revenue from pool users. Like Harrison, he questioned why cost estimates jumped after the election.
While board approval of a 50-meter pool still looked to be a long shot, trustees voted 3-2 to delay a final decision. McGuire said that with the Christmas break starting, his staff won’t have time to present more details at the board’s Jan. 17 meeting, so a final decision will probably come in February.
Three trustees — Cindy Smith, Jeannie Kerr and newly seated Maria Haug — agreed the board should wait before settling on a design.
Kerr said she likes the 30-meter option, but added, “I think it’s really important that things are vetted out to everyone’s satisfaction.” She also echoed the concerns about shifting cost estimates.
“It concerns me when people come to board meetings with very strong feelings and feel like they haven’t been included,” said Smith, adding that she’d like more time to “get up to speed before making a decision.”
However, she said she’d like to see the project break ground in May or June, and added that the district “certainly can’t afford a $5-or-$6 million pool.”
Trustees Jeff Conwell and Sean Maher, who sit on the Facilities Committee that backed the 30-meter option, cast dissenting votes. Maher said he didn’t want to delay a decision just to have “the same discussions and battles” at another board meeting.
‘No rush’ to break ground
McGuire said the delay could affect the district’s plans to start construction in June.
“But if it doesn’t happen in June, it doesn’t happen in June,” McGuire said. “It’s not going to be the end of the world. … We have a pool that’s working, so there’s no rush.”
Once the board approves a pool design, the plans will have to be approved by the California Division of State Architects, an unpredictable process that typically takes months, McGuire explained. If the board had approved a pool last week, the plans probably could have been approved in time for construction to start in late May or early June and end as soon as December, McGuire said.
Waiting until February to approve a design might jeopardize the district’s ability to get the pool done by the time the high school swim team starts practicing in February 2014, McGuire said.
Building the pool in the summer of 2014 probably wouldn’t be advisable because that’s when construction is expected to take place on the high school auditorium, and the logistics of moving equipment and vehicles would make it impossible to do both projects at the same time, he said. The summer of 2015 would be the next opportunity to break ground.
50 meters vs. 30 meters
Kevin Twohey is a swim coach who also sits on the Facilities Committee. He said a 30-meter pool “would be the right-sized pool for the school and the community, and something we could continue to support for many years to come.”
Twohey said he was disappointed that none of the swimmers who supported a 50-meter pool had brought their concerns to the Facilities Committee.
Serianni said that given some time, they might be able to find donors who would help make up the cost differential between a 30-meter and 50-meter pool — and maybe even make a long-term pledge toward operating costs.
“But we don’t know what those numbers are, so we have nothing to present to them,” Serianni said.