News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

July 21, 2013

Decaying high school pools pose financial problem

Monday presentation meeting will uncover several different proposals

TERRE HAUTE — The swimming pools at Terre Haute North Vigo and South Vigo high schools, which opened in 1971, are showing their age.

They were built to last 30 years “and we’re on year 43,” said Franklin Fennell, the district’s director of facility support and transportation.

In a tour of the Terre Haute North pool, Fennell showed how metal supporting the pool walls is deteriorating; pipes that recirculate water are rusting and corroding; and supporting concrete has become fatigued and much of it needs to be replaced — to what extent they wouldn’t know unless they take the pool apart.

Pool decking is falling apart and uneven, and the pools have settled in some places.

There are many “unknowns” as to the extent of what would be found should the school district undertake a complete renovation of the aging pool. School officials would also face the issue of how you go about removing and replacing concrete in a pool that is underground and within the high school itself.

Rusted, corroded piping can be replaced, “but I have to take the pool out to get to it,” Fennell said. A tour of the facility shows obvious problems with deterioration and corrosion. “I know what we see,” Fennell said. “Imagine what we don’t see.”

Age and exposure to chlorine have taken a toll.

The pools at North and South have been well-maintained, but extensive, costly work would be needed to keep them safe and useable — and they would still be pools whose construction dates back to the late 1960s and that don’t meet today’s competition standards.

The current pools have six swimming lanes, while present swim standards for sectional meets are eight lanes. They do not have a diving well, and requirements with regard to pool depths have changed. The high diving boards have had to be removed because the deep ends were too shallow.

While the pools remain safe for student use, “Within two years, if we don’t do something, the pools would have to be closed,” said Supt. Dan Tanoos in interviews last week. “We feel they are safe today, but we don’t feel in that two-year span they will continue to be safe.”

Fennell agreed “Time is not on our side,” he said. On a monthly basis at North and South, his staff members go around the entire pool — in a basement area where much of it has no light — to check for stability “to make sure we’re protecting the integrity of the pool.” They literally have to crawl around using flashlights to go around the walls of the below-ground pools.

The estimate to completely renovate the school district’s pools, including the one at West Vigo, is $11 million — something Tanoos doesn’t feel he can recommend.

“It would be a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, in my opinion, to replace the three pools in the places they are today,” he said. “They have outlived their usefulness.”

At North and South, the pools can’t be expanded because of support columns that support the first story of the schools. West Vigo’s pool also has no room for expansion.

The pool at West Vigo, built a few years later in the 1970s, has its own unique issues. There is a leakage problem, but personnel can’t easily get to the problem areas.

Unlike North and South, it lacks a basement-like area underneath to inspect plumbing and pool walls. “It’s all grade-level and encapsulated,” Fennel said. The pool liner would have to be taken out and potentially some of the pool walls removed to assess plumbing and the support structure.

Ralph Wagle, president of Garmong Construction, has been a consultant in the evaluation process to identify options for the district. Pools are just like a car or any other product people buy and use, he said Friday.

“They all have a useful life and all have a point where they are worn out and not worthy of replacing or trying to repair once the condition is so bad,” Wagle said. “It’s our opinion that is where they [existing pools] are at.”

Garmong looked at four scenarios: building one new pool to replace three existing ones, at an estimated cost of about $9.5 million; renovating the three pools, at a total cost of about $11 million; constructing three new pools, one at each campus but at a different location from the current pools, about $27 million; and build brand new pools where existing ones are located, but up to today’s standards.

The last option would have involved tearing out a cafeteria and/or auditorium and was deemed not feasible, Wagle said.

In renovating the three pools, estimated to cost $11 million, “You would be spending a lot of money and end up with a product outdated the day you get done,” Wagle said.

The district has proposed a general obligation bond issue to construct a centrally located single swimming pool facility, which would be used by all three high-school swim teams.

The district has not yet revealed any specific site. “That is yet to be determined,” Tanoos said. He has been approached by at least six different individuals or entities offering to sell or donate land.

During a presentation at Monday’s meeting of the Vigo County School Board, information will be presented on the tax rate impact, which officials expect to be neutral because some bond issues will be paid off and go off the tax rate over the next few years.

Because the proposed bond issue for the swimming pool would be less than $10 million, it would not require a voter referendum, but it is subject to a petition/remonstrance process, once a legal hearing is conducted and if the board decides to move forward.

If enough people objected to the project, they could block it for a year under that process.

Extensive exploration of issues and options

News of the proposal has generated much discussion, controversy, support and opposition to the point that the School Board canceled a proposed legal hearing that would potentially have advanced the project.

Instead, at 6 p.m. Monday at Sarah Scott Middle School, district officials plan a detailed presentation with at least 10 speakers, Tanoos said. The presentation will include information on the current state of the pools, the proposed new pool project, financing for the project and comments from coaches, teachers and community members who have served on an exploratory committee.

Tanoos, Fennell, Wagle and Donna Wilson, district chief financial officer, are among those who will present.

After the presentation, citizens will have the opportunity to make their voices heard. Speakers will be limited to five minutes each, and the meeting will continue as long as necessary to accommodate those who want to speak, Tanoos said.

“I knew this was going to be a hot topic,” Tanoos said in last week’s interview. “I fully understood that … but I’m not willing to shy away from it.”

The pool issue is something he wants to address before planning begins for major renovation projects at North, South and West Vigo, which he roughly estimates could cost $80 million to $100 million. That will require a referendum process, in which it is put on the ballot for a decision by voters.

Major renovations are needed at the high schools to replace heating/cooling systems, repair plumbing issues, expand science labs and replace inefficient single-pane windows.

Tanoos noted that one possible option — not something the district recommends — would be to build new pools, at new locations, at the three high schools and make it part of the future referendum. But each new pool would cost about $9 million, or $27 million total — and that would be added onto the already expensive renovations needed at the high schools.

Another option is to do nothing and eventually close the pools when they are no longer safe to operate. But that would mean the end of the district swimming program.

“I don’t believe that is the best thing for our community,” Tanoos said. “I don’t believe our school board believes that, either.”

He and his administration are recommending constructing one centrally located pool and closing the existing pools.

“We looked at what is best for the school system and the taxpayers of Vigo County,”  he said.

New facility would broaden possibilities

What’s being proposed is a pool 50 meters long and 25 yards wide, as yards are the standard competition distance for high school and collegiate events. It would contain 22 swim lanes. That would allow 18 lanes to be used for swimmers from the three high schools and the remainder for divers, in a diving well area of the pool.

The three existing pools would be closed and repurposed into classrooms or other uses.

The new facility would seat 300 to 500 people.

The facility also would have a small therapeutic pool for students who have injuries and for use by special-needs students.

Tanoos said he’s spoken with local hospital officials, who have expressed interest in using a therapeutic pool for patients with various injuries.

Disabled veterans also could potentially benefit from the facility, based on other discussions he’s had.

Many have asked why the pools can’t be replaced at existing sites. Estimates are that it would cost $11 million, and they would still be improperly sized pools that don’t meet today’s standards, he said.

He believes it would be more economical to maintain one pool instead of three, with lower utility costs and possibly fewer employees.

He clarified that the new pool would offer for-credit high school swim classes, and there has been discussion about learn-to-swim programs for young elementary-aged children.

Students would have to transport themselves or find transportation to the pool, whether for classes or athletics, he said, which he doesn’t view as a roadblock. “That sure hasn’t limited the kids from participating in other sports who have to transport themselves to those events,” he said.

Even those whose families have limited incomes find ways to get to youth football or baseball practice, he said.

If it becomes a barrier for some students, “We’ve always found ways to help out,” Tanoos said.

He emphasized the district does not want to compete with the Vigo County YMCA, which has been involved in discussions at meetings related to the pool issue. “We support what they are doing and stand behind their programs,” he said.

Tanoos noted that currently, the Torpedoes swim club uses school district facilities at no charge. With the new facility, the Torpedoes would pay a fee. “Nearly every community that has club usage of schools charges a fee,” Tanoos said.

A centrally located swim facility could also bring opportunities for swim clubs and swimming events.

But Tanoos explains, “I think those are all secondary. I think the main focus is doing this for our students,” he said. “Everything else that comes to play comes into play as an extra.”

Opinions sought ... and varied

To some, it may seem as though the pool proposal came from out of nowhere. But Tanoos said many people have been involved in the discussions, and a committee met on the issue, although those meetings were never made public.

“I brought in a lot of people to talk about this issue,” Tanoos said. “I’ve had conversations with engineers, architects, I’ve had parents in meetings. …  I’ve talked to former swimmers, our mayor, the County Council, CEOs at hospitals; the head of the United Way. And the Vigo County YMCA was very involved in this process,” he said. Swim coaches, teachers, administrators and the Torpedoes also have been involved in the discussion.

Some citizens have raised concerns that the district’s proposed pool would be a facility primarily used by high school swim teams and the Torpedoes swim club. They see it as an athletic facility more than an academic facility.

Tanoos asks, “Does that mean this community is willing to do away with competitive swimming? Would they be willing to do the same thing with football, baseball or basketball?”

Much money also is invested in other sports offered by the district. “We’ve have to renovate them and put millions of dollars into our facilities, but there has not been anyone say, let’s do away with football, baseball, basketball or soccer,” he said.

It appears at least one other entity is interested in being involved in the proposed pool facility.

On Thursday, Bill Thomas, president of the Vigo County Council, confirmed the county “is working on a proposal that we feel will address the concerns of the community as well as meet school corporation needs.”

He would not elaborate, but he said he would present the proposal at the Monday night meeting.

The county’s proposal “would involve some county funding, but it would not center around property taxes,” Thomas said. “There are other avenues we are researching.”

Tanoos says that the first step for the school district is to make the presentation Monday.

“If that opens doors for others to converse with us about partnerships or financial support, we would be open to those discussions,” he said. “We are willing to listen.”

But the school district is on a tight timeline, he said. “We can’t slow the process down. We are on a timeline with the current conditions of our pools,” he said.

The school district’s top priority is a facility that serves VCSC students, Tanoos reiterated.

If the board should decide against the recommendation of one centralized pool, “then the board has to decide what direction they would like to go,” Tanoos said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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