A planned pool for Prince William County’s 12th high school has some parents concerned that the school system is spending too much money on amenities.
Last week, Superintendent Steven L. Walts unveiled highlights of a proposed $893 million budget for fiscal 2014. It includes initial funding for constructing a mid-county school, which is scheduled to open in fall 2016 and would feature the system’s first indoor swimming pool.
A group of county residents, called Our Schools, concerned about education spending sees the pool as an untimely, unnecessary expense for a school slated to cost $108 million, $37 million more than the recently completed Patriot High School. Last week, the School Board approved an application to the Virginia Public School Authority for a $67 million bond sale, $8 million of which would be for the 12th high school.
The school system “continues to have champagne taste on a beer budget, opting for award-winning architecture and amenities rather than award-winning test scores and graduation rates,” Tracy Conroy and Dyanne Liga of Our Schools said in a statement. “With extreme overcrowding and continued growth in the west and aging buildings with outdated technology in the east, we believe the county should seek better bang for the taxpayer’s buck.”
The school system didn’t respond to questions regarding the pool before deadline. School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large) has expressed support for the pool publicly.
Several youth swim clubs have had difficulty getting lane times in recent years, as the number of youth swimmers has increased and health clubs have sought to provide more opportunities for their members.
Aaron Dean, general manager of Occoquan Swimming, said adding lanes is crucial for all levels of youth swimmers. Despite using the Dale City Recreation Center, Chinn Aquatics & Fitness Center and the Manassas-area Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center, Dean still has issues finding lane times for his 450 youth swimmers.
“There are kids we have to turn way because we don’t have a place [for them] to swim,” said Dean, who acknowledged the swimmers’ desire for having a school pool since the opening of Battlefield High in 2004.
Neighboring Fairfax County has nine recreation centers with pools, but none of its high schools has a pool. Arlington County, which spends nearly twice as much per student as Prince William, has pools at all three high schools.
Arlington schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said all three pools have been in existence for 35 years, a joint decision by the county and school system. And with all three high schools having moved into or about to move into new buildings soon, putting in a new pool has become a community expectation, Bellavia said.
Building a pool is no cheap venture, former Freedom Center general manager Ron L. Carmichael said. Carmichael said the 110,000-square-foot center, which has a 33,500-square-foot natatorium, would probably cost $45 million to build today. That’s two and half times its $18.3 million cost in 1999. And based on inflation, maintaining the center’s natatorium would cost more than $1.2 million a year, Carmichael said.
The Chinn Center natatorium, which has a smaller pool, costs about $150,000 annually to maintain, not including staff time. The Freedom Center’s maintenance figures include staff time, materials and indirect costs, such as lighting and heating the facility. Arlington spends just more than $1.5 million annually to maintain its three pools, Bellavia said.
Johns said that he thinks there is a need in Prince William and that renting the pool outside of school time would help recoup operating costs.
“I want to go on the record that the pool at the 12th high school is a good idea,” Johns said during the Feb. 6 School Board meeting.
Board member Lisa E. Bell (Neabsco) said she would need to see all the costs involved, as well as the building’s blueprint, before making a final decision.
“Our mission is to educate children, and included in that priority is reducing class sizes and compensating our teachers,” Bell said.
Member Betty D. Covington (Potomac) said she’s undecided about whether she would support the pool and would have to look at the numbers.
“We haven’t had any formal board discussion about it,” Covington said.
The School Board will meet Wednesday for the first of several budget work sessions before voting on the budget March 20.