By Tina Richards

The price tag for a new swimming pool needed to replace the failed aquatic facility at El Modena High School has nearly doubled since cost estimates were presented to the Orange Unified Board of Trustees last August.

At that time, the board was told that replacing ElMo’s leaking and unusable 25-meter pool would cost $3,264,570.  A 33-meter pool would be $3,933,254, and a 51-meter option, $5,626,260.  The board was inclined to pursue the 33-meter version because the cost wasn’t dramatically higher than the 25-meter, and the larger pool provided more flexibility for the aquatic programs that used it.

A contingent of El Modena swimmers, coaches and parents lobbied for the 51-meter version, and the board agreed to include it, along with the 33-meter configuration, in a study contract awarded to the Aquatics Design Group headed by Dennis Berkshire.

Asked and answered
As part of that contract, Berkshire met with swimmers, water polo players, coaches and parents to determine what type of aquatics facility would best serve them. Based on the number of swim lanes preferred for competitions, pool length to accommodate floating goals for water polo, the ratio of shallow to deep water suitable for both sports, and the desire to host multiple activities simultaneously, the consultant determined that a 35-meter pool, at $6,983,970, met the minimum requirements.  The 51-meter pool preferred by aquatics stakeholders would cost $9,482,970.

These numbers were presented more than three hours into the Jan. 17 school board meeting that had covered the district’s capital budget (more going out than coming in), five-year deferred maintenance plan ($1 million cut from the proposed $5.7 for this summer’s projects), Fred Kelly Stadium (construction bid came in lower than budgeted), district priorities for facilities and the lack of an overall facilities master plan.

Following hours of discussion weighing district facilities needs against budget realities, the nearly doubled pool costs left board members shocked and dismayed. The burning question was, how did the prices get so high?  Berkshire reported that a bathhouse and mechanical building meeting state requirements was an additional $1.6 million. Increasing the 33-meter pool length to 35 meters cost about $100,000.  And then there were soft costs and fees for Division of State Architect approvals.

No money to follow
“We don’t have $7 million,” Trustee Kris Erickson maintained.  “We’re in a difficult place.  What happened to the 33-meter?  What are the minimum requirements?  I’m confused by needs versus wants.”

Kathy Moffatt, too, sought clarity between what pool users preferred, to what was realistically needed.  “Incorporating everyone’s preferences is nice, but not affordable.  Can we get everything we need in a smaller pool?”  

The board tossed around alternatives – going back to the original 25-meter pool, exploring 30- and 33-meter versions, limiting lanes, rethinking details of the final product, evaluating amenities. 

“I’m concerned where this is going,” Rick Ledesma challenged. “We asked stakeholders for input. They asked for dual use. If we drastically change what stakeholders asked for, what is the integrity of the district?” Ledesma said that he favored a 51-meter pool, and that the district had the money.  Five million is already budgeted for the ElMo pool, he noted, and the rest could be found elsewhere. 

“We need to have a vision,” John Ortega agreed.  “We’re in a position to build something. A 51-meter pool brings more value to the district.  We need to look at it in that context.”

Moffatt asked how many ElMo students were in the aquatics program (60 to 70), and stressed, “we have to stand up for all of our constituents.  Parents are just as passionate about clean working restrooms as aquatics people are about 51-meter pools and football people are about sports fields.”

No clear direction
With the discussion going in circles, Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen said that district staff needed direction and asked individual board members to suggest a next move.

Brenda Lebsack asked Assistant Superintendent of Business Services David Rivera what he would recommend, and followed his advice to go for the 35-meter pool.

Kris Erickson said the proposals should be turned down, that the district should look for a more affordable solution.

Andrea Yamasaki was clearly frustrated. “We have to look at this globally. There’s too many budget issues, too many needs. We’re being shortsighted, looking at one thing.  We gave direction based on costs being half of this,” she said.  “Had we known it was $7 million, we would not have said go ahead.”

Board President Alexia Deligianni-Brydges said she favored the 35-meter, but was open to alternatives.

Moffatt reasserted that the district has to trim costs. “Two-thirds of our competing schools have 25-meter, or less, pools.  We’ve asked for others -- from other schools, from other sports, and other parents  -- to be included in this conversation.”

Ortega agreed to the 35-meter option. “We can whittle it down,” he conceded.

Ledesma stressed that the 35-meter pool is “what’s needed” and that the district has the money. “We just shaved a million off of deferred maintenance,” he said. “If we don’t do 35-meters at ElMo, we have to tell the other high schools they won’t get 35-meters either, because we’re setting a precedent.”

Price jump for ElMo pool leaves OUSD board struggling for solution

February 2019