Paso school board halts work on $10 million aquatic center, prompting outrage

Paso Robles students won’t get a long-awaited aquatic center any time soon after district officials put the financially strapped project on hold.

Construction on the multimillion-dollar swimming pool complex at the high school — funded partially by a $95 million bond measure approved by voters in 2016 — was supposed to begin this year.

But bids for the project came in over budget, and board trustees on Tuesday voted unanimously to table plans for the complex.

The district is also in the midst of a financial crisis and must cut $3 million from the budget during the next two years.

“We desperately need an aquatics complex,” Trustee Chris Bausch said. “We can’t afford an aquatics complex today.”

Aquatic center history

The aquatic center was a major priority for former Superintendent Chris Williams, who resigned in December. After the bond measure passed in November 2016, the district began making plans to build the complex.

District officials budgeted $5.7 million in bond money for what was originally a $10.57 million project that included two pools, bleachers, a locker room, restrooms, solar water heating and a concession stand, according to a 2016 master facilities plan.

In February, however, Williams told The Tribune that the aquatic center would cost $8.2 million. It’s unclear why district leaders believed the project could be completed for much less than the facilities plan predicted.

The district planned to meet the $8.2 million target with the $5.7 million in bond money and an additional $2.5 million from fundraising.

In January 2018, board trustees voted to use $945,000 in bond money to purchase materials for a 50-meter pool and a 25-meter pool, which still remain in storage containers near the high school. The district also used $362,828 for site cleanup. That leaves about $4.4 million in bond money.

As it ramped up plans to begin construction, the district anticipated it would raise $750,000 before the center’s groundbreaking in April, Williams said. He and other officials posed for Paso Robles Press photos with shovels and hardhats at the complex site that month.

In November, though, an informational flier showed the district had raised only $211,000 — less than a third of the money Williams said was needed prior to groundbreaking and less than 10 percent of the total fundraising goal.

On Dec. 6, Williams announced he was leaving the district.

The site of the planned aquatic center remains vacant at Paso Robles High School. School board members voted to postpone the project due to budget shortfalls. David Middlecamp

Construction bids over budget

At Tuesday’s meeting, the district’s chief business officer Brad Pawlowski presented bids from two contractors, both of which were well over either of the district’s earlier budget targets. The estimates accounting for all of the district’s preferred features came in between $11 million and more than $12.7 million.

The lowest base bid — which would include installation of the pools and deck, in addition to bleachers and a locker room — came to about $8.5 million, according to Pawlowski’s presentation. It doesn’t account for a public restroom, concessions or the solar heating.

As a result, district staff recommended the board reject all the bids and table the project until a permanent superintendent is hired.

Julian Crocker, former San Luis Obispo County Office of Education superintendent, is serving as Paso Robles’ interim superintendent while the district searches for a new leader.

With the project stalled, district officials are now wondering what to do next. They could either sell the pools, likely at a 20 to 25 percent financial loss, or save the parts until the complex can move forward.

The warranty on the pools will start in three years — an incentive to install the equipment sooner than later if the district chooses not to sell the parts.

On Wednesday, Board President Joel Peterson told The Tribune that, based on information they were given during the planning process, trustees thought bids for construction would be lower than those presented this week.

They also believed purchasing the pool materials last year was the best move to help push the project forward.

A disappointing outcome

Paso Robles residents and high school athletes understood the need to reject the bids but were also disappointed and angered.

Berkley Baker, a former Paso Robles High School softball coach, called the outcome of the aquatic center project “outrageous.”

“To me, it’s just a fraud on the people,” he said.

Teams currently practice at the city’s Municipal Pool near Flamson Middle School.

It’s small and has a shallow end and a deep end — not ideal for sports like water polo, which requires players to tread water the entire game.

Gabriella Clayton, a junior swimmer and water polo player at Paso Robles High School, said the district deserves the best aquatic complex in the state.

Clayton said she and her teammates have worked hard to raise money for their future facility.

“We don’t want to build another Muni,” she said at the meeting.

Tatiana Smeltzer, a junior water polo player, said a new pool would allow the team to host home meets and walk to practice instead of taking a bus.

“At this small Paso pool, we don’t see very many scouts coming our way,” she said.

Although the board opted not to move forward with the project, Crocker encouraged trustees to state their intentions for the complex.

“I think it would be helpful if the board affirmed their commitment to build the pool,” he said. “Just don’t leave this dangling.”

Trustees agreed to direct staff to bring the aquatic center project back for consideration after hiring a new superintendent.

On Wednesday, Peterson said he hopes the board can find a way to use the pools and make the project happen — possibly with private-public partnerships or other arrangements.

“The community wants an aquatic complex,” he said. “The community deserves an aquatic complex, and it’s our job to get it done for them.”

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.