After approving a 2012-13 budget that includes program cuts, employee furloughs and a tax increase, the Hazleton Area board of education approved reopening swimming pools in district elementary/middle schools that were closed last year as a cost-cutting measure.
There is, however, no money included in the budget for reopening the pools.
Directors voted 6-3 on Thursday to reopen swimming pools at the Valley, McAdoo-Kelayres and Freeland elementary/middle schools.
According to director Robert Wallace’s motion, an extensive engineering analysis will be undertaken on the swimming pool at the Heights-Terrace school, which was also closed during last year’s budgetary squeeze, to determine the source and repair cost of a significant leak that has been seeping thousands of gallons of water out of the pool for some time.
No cost estimate was discussed on the engineering analysis or repair limit.
In response to a question from director Steve Hahn, Business Manager Tony Ryba said the newly approved budget includes a minimal amount of funding dedicated to keeping the shuttered pools in viable condition, but there is no money budgeted to cover the cost of reopening and operating the pools.
Unbudgeted pool expenses would include water and chemicals. District Director of Operations Carl Yorina said it would cost approximately $114,000 to reopen the pools.
“So, the budget that was just passed does not have money in it to open the pools?” Hahn asked before the vote.
Ryba said the money to accomplish a board directive to reopen the pools would have to come out of the budgetary reserve.
The budgetary reserve held about $600,000 until the board, moments before discussion on the pools, approved a 2012-13 budget that required a $120,986 withdrawal from the reserve to balance.
“I guess we better watch we don’t have too many more motions or that whole budgetary reserve will be gone,” Hahn said.
Director Robert Childs, a strong proponent of reopening the swimming pools, said he hopes to organize a community committee dedicated to raising money to keep the pools afloat through fee-to-swim events and solicitation of business donations and grant funding.
“I want this to be like a ‘Castle’ project,” Childs said, in reference to the district-community partnership that raised the funds needed to remodel the auditorium of Hazleton Elementary / Middle School, known as The Castle.
In that project, the school district pledged taxpayer money and the community group held fundraisers, solicited public donations and sought grant funding to pay for renovation of auditorium in the 80-year-old public school. The auditorium, located in the functioning public school building, is used by school children during the day when school is in session, and is available for public use in the evening and summer.
“We want the district to put up the $114,000 up front and we will be looking for reimbursement to the district from the community, the business community and through grants,” Childs said.
“Or the board members could put the money in,” Director Clarence John interjected, reiterating a suggestion he made at a previous budget meeting that, rather than budgeting taxpayer money to fund reopening of the pools, each member of the board of education would donate an equal share of the cost.
Wallace said the plan outlined by Childs would make the pools available to the community for evening swimming with financial support from the community while keeping swim education available to students through financial support from the district.
“We are giving the community the opportunity to support the pools. If it doesn’t work, we’ll close them,” Wallace said.
Hahn questioned the equity of expending district funds on pools that are located in some, but not all, district schools.
Wallace said facility inequity exists across the district.
“Not every school has an air-conditioned cafeteria. Not every school has a beautiful auditorium. Not every school has a playground,” Wallace said.
Director Robert Mehalick said the pool inequity would be balanced by opening the facilities to the community after school.
“The students without pools can use the pools in the evenings,” Mehalick said.
John said inequity would still exist because students who receive swim education during the school day are not required to pay for the privilege, but students who swim in the evening under the community fee to swim plan would have to pay.
“If no student has to pay to swim during the school day, I think no student should have to pay if the pools are open to the community in the evening,” John said.
For the plan to work, Childs said, a nominal fee has to be charged to everyone who uses the pools after school. He said additional revenues could also be raised by renting the facilities for senior citizen swim nights and children’ birthday parties.
In response to a query by Yenkevich whether the community groups and facility use policies are in place, Childs said, “We can’t put it in place until the district approves the money to open the pools.”
With the motion to reopen the pools approved, Childs said he would revisit Hazleton City Authority Water Division to ask for a firm commitment to support the community pool plan. Childs said he approached HCA with an informal explanation of the plan in April, to which the HCA board at a public meeting said assistance in the form of water-sanitizing chemicals and water is a possibility.
Childs also directed a district employee to craft a survey, written in both Spanish and English, to gauge family interest in the community pool plan.
The survey, which was sent home with 7,000 elementary and middle school students while school was in session, asked how often the family would use the pools if they were open to the community after school and year-round.
Of the 1,836 families that responded to the survey, three out of every four indicated some interest in using the pools: 1,406 families said they would use the pools regularly or occasionally, and 430 responded they would never use the pool.
Childs also mailed letters to officials of the 13 municipalities in the district seeking support through financial donations, assistance of a grant writer, and organizing a fund-raising group similar to the Castle Fund to accept grants on behalf of the school district.
Municipal response to the letter was sparse.
Childs said he will extend the plea for assistance to service clubs and community organizations and will look for commitments of volunteers to staff ticket booths, dressing rooms or snack bars.
Directors Wallace, Bonomo, Childs, Mehalick, Marfy Yanac and Bran Earley voted “yes” to reopen the pools. Voting “no” were directors Hahn, John and Carmella Yenkevich.