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How an education spending law may help keep this pool closed to the public

Roosevelt High School in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Roosevelt High School in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Everyone’s ready for Roosevelt High School’s indoor pool in Northwest Washington to open to the public — senior citizens in the Petworth neighborhood for aquatic exercise classes, young families for their toddlers to take swimming lessons, athletes to swim laps.

But, after constructing a separate entrance for the public, the city can’t let them in yet. Why? Because there are no lifeguards or staff required to operate a public pool. And the reason for that is in part due to an education funding law set by Congress that says traditional public and charter schools must be funded equally.

The budget woes that have engulfed this pool highlight just how complicated and often convoluted local spending plans can be.

“Why would you spend $2.1 million to construct a public entrance for a pool and then not give the funding to staff it?” said Ward 4 D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D), whose ward includes the pool. “It’s hinging on how strict of an interpretation of this law we want to apply and it’s strange that it is coming up in the venue of a pool.”  

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In 1995, Congress passed the D.C. School Reform Act, which opened the door for charter schools in the District and required that the city fund charter and traditional schools equally on the basis of enrollment. Each year, the D.C. Council sets up a funding formula that allocates the same base funding level to every public school student, regardless of whether the student attends a traditional public or charter school. The money varies depending on students’ needs but not on where they attend school.

The indoor pool was completed as part of Roosevelt High’s complete redesign in 2016, and the school’s students have been using it. The Petworth community wanted the pool open to the community — so the city spent $2.1 million to build a separate entrance to the pool for the public.

But the mayor’s proposed budget did not include money to operate the pool for the public. When George learned that the money wasn’t in the budget, she pushed to get it into the school system’s budget. But she discovered that it wasn’t that simple. If the city added the money, it would have to give the charter sector — which educates nearly half the public school population — the same amount of money through the per pupil funding formula.

The additional complication is that District’s Department of Parks and Recreation operates the city’s public pools. But because this pool is on the school system property, those setting the budget thought the money to operate it must come from the school system’s budget. The school system would pay the parks department to operate the pool.

There was confusion over whether the money to operate the pool could more efficiently be allocated to the parks department and bypass the school system all together.

The parks department initially told George that the money could not just be given to the park agency, according to emails shared with The Washington Post. The city estimates it costs around $450,000 annually to pay for lifeguards and staff necessary to operate the public pool.

On Friday, a spokesman for the park agency said in a statement that the council could, in fact, set aside money in its budget for the pool, and that it did not need to come from the school system budget.

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“I would really like to see the council work through the bureaucracy in order to bring  about something that is truly beneficial for the entire community,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Audrey Duckett, whose jurisdiction includes Roosevelt.

The reason this became so complicated is that there is little precedent for funding community use of a pool on school property in the District. Most indoors pools — even if they are attached to a school — are co-located on property belonging to the park agency. The popular Wilson Aquatic Center in Northwest Washington, for example, is located next to Wilson High but is actually a parks department pool.

Funding for community use of the two city pools similar to the one at Roosevelt — the indoor pools at H.D. Woodson and Dunbar — fall into a gray area of funding. The parks and recreation department says the agency staffs those pools, but doesn’t specifically get money allocated for it. The school system does not pay for staffing the pools either. City officials confirmed that the parks department finds money in its existing budget each year to cover the costs.

Now that many of the technicalities have been ironed out, it’s up to the council members to decide if they want to fund the nearly half million dollars for the Roosevelt pool in the upcoming budget. The pool’s fate will be decided soon — the D.C. Council takes the final vote on the city’s $17.5 billion budget on Tuesday.

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