District plans to close Sumner High School pool

Old age, high cost and lack of space spurred the Sumner School District to shut down the pool next year for the high school remodel, but some coaches and parents are hoping to find a different solution.

The Sumner High School pool is now scheduled to close by the end of the 2018-2019 swim season. Photo courtesy of the Sumner School District.

2/23/2017 correction: In the original story, posted Feb. 1, 2017, the photo caption stated the Sumner pool was planned to close at the end of the 2018-2019 swim season. The photo caption has been corrected to say it is planned to close at the end of the 2017-2018 swim season.

After decades of use, the Sumner School District is looking at finally shuttering the Sumner High School pool.

This decision has been more than 10 years in the making, starting with the school board adopting a long-range facilities plan in 2003.

The plan called for the pool to close by August 2008, but when the time came around, the board decided to keep the pool running for as long as it possibly could.

That time, it seems, has finally arrived in conjunction with the upcoming remodel of the high school.

Designs for the remodel, which is only a part of the plan the district outlined in its $162 million bond proposal voters approved Feb. 2016, has not yet been finalized.

But according to renderings by the designers of the remodel, it seems clear that there is no plan to keep the pool structure intact.

“This has been a long, hard decision,” said District Chief Financial Officer Debbie Campbell. “We’ve kept it going as long as we possibly could.”

Closing the pool is certainly going to affect the Spartan and Panther swim and dive teams, and the district may have to start looking at partnering with other pools to practice in and hold meets..

But construction isn’t planned to begin until next year, after at least another full season of both boys and girls swim.

“The pool is expected to remain open for swim team use through the 2017-18 swim seasons, which conclude approximately March 2018,” Campbell said.

Athletics Director Tim Thomsen said that the end of the next swim season would be the earliest the pool would close, adding that the year deadline could be met only if the permitting and design process go as smoothly as possible.

Still, some parents and coaches are concerned with how closing the pool will affect student athletes and they plan to find a way to keep the pool on the school campus.

REASONS TO CLOSE

One of the reasons the district is looking to close the pool, Campbell and Thomsen said, is a lack of space.

Sumner High School houses upward of 1,800 students on a 25 acre campus, which “may be the smallest 4A high school campus in the state,” Thomsen said.

The high school remodel is going to address this overcrowding, potentially by adding extra floors to house those students.

But making the high school bigger also means making more parking available.

“When you do a remodeling project, you’re required by whatever ordinance is effective at the time to provide adequate parking,” Campbell said.

That ordinance would be section 18.42.040(H) of the Sumner Municipal Code, but Sumner’s Communications Director Carmen Palmer said because the city hasn’t received an application for the school’s remodel, it’s possible that there are different ways to meet city code requirements beyond building the additional spaces.

“We use the zoning code as a guide to start the discussion and plans, but with things like parking requirements, we have options, like shared parking, that we can work through with the applicant to meet the code requirements but not be so onerous as it might originally appear,” Palmer wrote in an email. “In short, once we receive an application, we’ll use the code to work through these issues with the applicant (school district) and neighborhood to hopefully find a balance that works for everyone.”

With that in mind, the school currently has 471 parking spaces, and the district has estimated it needs to increase that number to 851 parking spaces to be compliant with the city, Campbell said, adding that the spaces can be built, leased or shared in neighborhoods.

The space where the pool resides is one area the district is looking to turn into parking space.

The district is also considering moving the tennis courts west of the fastpitch field, expanding the west parking lot and purchasing off-campus property for additional space, although these plans are not set in stone.

But space is tight and something has to go, Campbell said, and there really is nowhere else to turn into parking space, “Not if you want a fastpitch field. A baseball field. A stadium,” she said. “This is a very small footprint for a high school campus… it’s really compact.”

But that lack of space isn’t the only reason the district wants the pool gone.

It’s also “half dead,” Campbell said, referring to the boiler that keeps the water warm.

Also, the showers are broken and no longer have hot water, she added.

The problem with the hot shower water and the boiler aren’t related, but both would be pricey to fix.

To fix the hot water in the showers would be about $50,000, Campbell said, which is about how much money the district has spent to keep the pool open since Sept. 1, 2016 and is 40 percent of the overall budget for the pool this year.

And to fix the boiler is a completely different monster.

“You can’t just fix the boiler,” she said. “You have to build a new pool.”

Thomsen said the district has worked hard over the years to keep the pool functional long past its lifespan.

“We kept it open 13 years longer than one of our committees thought we could,” he said, referring to the 2003 vote to close the pool by 2008. “We squeezed every minute of pool time we could out of that old system.”

And the reason why the district won’t build a new pool – beyond the fact that the district needs as much space as possible for parking – is twofold.

First, the district hasn’t asked its residents to pay for a new pool, and the funds aren’t there.

“In our bond, when we asked our taxpayers for $164 million, we did not include money for a pool,” Campbell said. “We did not say, ‘give us $12 – $15 million to build a pool someplace else,’ because Sumner School District does not want to be in the municipal pool business.”

Second, all four swim teams – boys and girls Panthers and Spartans – only use the Sumner pool a small fraction of the time available to them.

“The Sumner School District, for team use, uses the pool about 11 percent of the time. And that’s really all it is,” said Campbell, adding that she calculated that figure by using the Fife pool, open seven days a week, as a reference.

All in all, “the cost of operating the pool, just keeping the natural gas on and to keep the water in, costs us more than what the rental fees would be” at another pool, Campbell continued. “It will be more cost effective to send our kids out. But that’s not a long-term solution.”

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS, LONG AND SHORT

For short term solutions, Thomsen is calling around looking for pools that the district’s swim teams could practice and compete in.

The district is already partnered with the Sumner YMCA, Thomsen said, with swimmers using the pool in the morning as an alternative or extra workout.

But that doesn’t cover all the district’s needs, since the YMCA doesn’t have a dive tank, touch pads, starting blocks, or anything else the aquatics program needs to host a meet.

That means Thomsen is going to have to start calling other schools or cities like Puyallup, Auburn, Enumclaw, the Muckleshoot tribe or even Pacific Lutheran University to ask if they could rent space and time in their pools.

Thomsen said he hasn’t started up conversations with other schools or cities about using their pools yet, but he has more than a year to put a plan together.

“There are some unanswered questions,” he said. “But the intent of the school district has always been to continue the aquatics programs.”

As for a long-term solution, both Campbell and Thomsen mentioned the possibility of a Bonney Lake community pool.

According to Thomsen, the district has talked to Bonney Lake about using some of their capital project funds to help the city build a pool on the Plateau, potentially in the future Midtown Park area, where the Washington State University forest currently sits.

“A municipality can run it much cheaper than we can,” Thomsen said. “It’s more appropriate for a city to run a pool.”

The Bonney Lake City Council has yet to begin discussion on Midtown Park, let alone talk about the possibility of including a pool at the site, but Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson confirmed the discussions about the pool with the school district.

“I want to incorporate it into the WSU master plan,” he said. “My ad hoc committee will start working on this very soon. My hope is we can have many partners to help in this endeavor.”

COMMUNITY PUSHBACK

While no one seems happy seeing the community staple go, some parents and coaches are hoping to convince the district to keep the pool.

Emily Terrell, the mother of a freshman Spartan swimmer, said she’s frustrated at several of the district’s decisions, starting at closing the pool to the public in 2010.

“The only viable alternative is the YMCA, which at over $100 a month, and for our family of three, it is outside of our family budget,” she said. “This is true for many in the Sumner and Bonney Lake communities.

“Additionally, the YMCA does not have a dive tank. No other school in the region has the capacity to house our dozens of swimmers and divers,” she continued. “The closing of the pool, first to the community and then all together, is a great shame and something we’d like to see corrected… This pool is a huge community benefit that needs to be preserved.”

Sumner boys swim coach Maari Bennett said she’s not sure where her student athletes will be going for practice and meets. “I have over 30 kids just on my team… my kids are devastated,” Bennett said. “The YMCA is always full and has no dive tank. Puyallup pool is full with the Puyallup team. Rogers pool is full with the Rogers swimmers.

“Swimming is a no-cut sport that builds healthy, lifelong habits… One of my special needs students was tearing up telling me how being on the team has changed his life,” she continued. “This is such a great loss.”

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