Paso Robles school district leaders are determined to build the largest high school aquatic center in San Luis Obispo County, one they hope will host regional tournaments and generate enough revenue to support itself.
But they’re in the midst of a major budget shortfall and don’t have close to the allocated bond money needed for the $10 million pool project.
As a result, board trustees in January tabled plans for the facility after construction bids came in millions of dollars over budget.
But they’re not giving up.
As planned, the aquatic center would include two pools — one 50 meters long and another 25 meters long — making it more than double the size of any high school complex in the county.
Which begs the question: Is it still realistic for the Paso Robles district to pursue such a large aquatic center?
Despite the significant challenges, district leaders and community aquatic boosters said they remain committed to getting the project done as envisioned.
“Everything’s on the table,” said Joel Peterson, school board president, in a Thursday conference call. “We need to find a way to build this pool.”
Paso Robles pool budget woes
No one disputes that Paso Robles High School athletes need a facility of their own.
The school has the largest enrollment of the county’s nine public high schools with 2,143 students, but its swimmers, divers and water polo players must travel across town to practice at the city’s 50-year-old Municipal Pool.
For these reasons and the district’s aspiration to establish itself as the county’s go-to spot for aquatic competitions, Paso Robles’ 2016 bond measure included the two-pool facility among the projects it would fund.
But in a strategy not attempted by other local districts, the measure specified Paso Robles schools would seek “private donations and joint-use funding to complete the project.”
At the time, a facilities master plan showed the full complex — including the pools, deck, bleachers, concession stand, locker rooms, restrooms, a pool equipment room and a solar water heating system — would likely cost at least $10.57 million.
But by early 2018, former Superintendent Chris Williams, who resigned in December, was estimating the aquatic center would run the district closer to $8.2 million. A sizable chunk, $5.7 million, was to come from the bond and another $2.5 million from fundraising.
It’s unclear why his estimate was different — and ultimately didn’t line up with the eventual bids submitted to the board last month.
It’s also unknown how the district planned to raise such a large additional sum.
Nevertheless, by January 2018, school board trustees were ready to make a big down payment on the project, purchasing two Italian-built stainless steel pools for $945,000.
Board President Peterson told The Tribune that leaders wanted to buy the pools prior to breaking ground on the project because they felt they were getting a good financial deal and they hoped having the parts in hand would jump-start fundraising.
But that didn’t happen as the district hoped.
Swim Paso, a local ad hoc committee formed to support the aquatic center project, has raised just $215,000 of the needed $2.5 million, according to Jennifer Brown, a committee member and former high school swimming coach.
About $250,000 in grading and site preparation work was also donated, bringing the total to about $500,000, Peterson said.
Now, the district has just $4.4 million to complete the $10 million aquatic complex, according to a presentation by Brad Pawlowski, chief business officer.
But completing the project for that price now appears unlikely.
That’s because in January, contractor bids for the full project came in at more than $12 million. Even a bare-bones version — including both pools, a deck, bleachers and a locker room — came to about $8.5 million.
In spite of the large price tag, Brown and district officials believe in the idea that a larger complex would allow Paso Robles to host aquatic sports events and make the pools self-sustaining.
“This facility is actually perfect for hosting tournaments,” Brown said of the planned complex.
The center would cost about $400,000 per year to maintain, according to Pawlowski’s presentation.
SLO County aquatic facilities
Paso Robles’ project makes it one of five county high schools that used or is using bond money to build new pool complexes to support aquatic sports and community swimming.
But if completed as planned, it would stand out among its peers: both for its size and how its funding was acquired.
To host California Interscholastic Federation competitions, pools must have at least 25 yards for swim meets. For water polo matches, which require players to tread water, pools need to be 7 feet deep for at least 25 meters.
The only similar-sized local campus without an aquatic complex, San Luis Obispo High School, also has one in the works. However, with only one 35-meter pool, it’s smaller and cheaper than Paso’s proposed facility.
The price tag for SLO’s pool is $8.3 million and is fully covered by a $177 million bond approved by voters in 2014, according to Ryan Pinkerton, San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s assistant superintendent for business services.
The district also completed a 35-meter-by-25-yard pool at Morro Bay High School in 2017. The project used $6.2 million of the bond money, according to the district’s bond measure budget.
The difference in cost is largely due to construction expenses, which increased over time, Pinkerton said.
Although some members of the community were interested in bigger pools and additional amenities, Pinkerton said, he encouraged school board members to keep the pools smaller.
This especially made sense in San Luis Obispo, which already has a 50-meter public pool at Sinsheimer Park.
“At some point, you have to make decisions about your budget and what you’re able to afford,” he said.
Two South County schools also built new pools within the last 20 years.
Lucia Mar Unified School District installed a 25-meter-by-25-yard pool at Nipomo High School in 2001 and a 33-meter-by-25-yard pool at Arroyo Grande High School in 2005, according to Amy Jacobs, a district spokeswoman.
A ‘nice compromise’ in Morro Bay
There’s no doubt the addition of a pool can make a big impact on a high school.
Morro Bay’s new pool altered the course of the its aquatic sports programs, said Andrew Silva, assistant athletic director for aquatics.
He said the facility is a “nice compromise,” as it was financially feasible and is big enough to support all the school’s water sports.
“The change in the high school aquatics program has been immediate,” Silva said.
Teams previously had to drive around to different pools in Cayucos, Cambria and San Luis Obispo to find places for workouts — now athletes just walk across campus.
“A lot went into the simple act of just scheduling a practice,” Silva said.
Plus, having a pool on campus means teams can host home games and meets, allowing athletes’ friends and family to come watch their events.
“I think it’s made it more attractive,” Silva said of the school’s aquatic sports program. “It’s made it more visible.”
Paso Robles isn’t giving up on its vision
For now, the Paso Robles district remains committed to its original two-pool plan.
Switching to a smaller option by dropping one of the pools or reducing the sizes would likely be too expensive, Pawlowski told The Tribune.
Officials also don’t plan on selling the pool parts the district has already bought, so they’ll remain in storage near the undeveloped site on the high school campus.
“Redoing the design would actually cost the district more money,” he said.
Instead, board trustees have placed the aquatic complex on hold until they are able to hire a new superintendent.
Meanwhile, other bond-funded projects — like large-scale renovations to Georgia Brown Dual Immersion Magnet School, Glen Speck Academy of the Arts and Marie Bauer Early Childhood Education Center — are underway.
The district has sold just the first series of its bonds, raising about $40 million so far, Pawlowski said. Paso Robles homeowners are paying $48.53 per $100,000 of assessed value on their property taxes to repay the bond.
Even though the pools have been moved toward the bottom of the priority list, the remaining money that was to go toward the project is still set aside, he said.
The district has spent about $3.2 million of its bond money so far, according to Pawlowski. Most of the funds have gone toward design costs, he said.
Keeping an upbeat outlook on the project, Brown of Swim Paso called the board’s decision to hold off on the complex a “temporary setback.”
For its part, the group intends to begin holding community workshops to gather public feedback about the project. Peterson said the board is supportive of Swim Paso’s efforts.
“It’s just something I’m very passionate about,” Brown said. “I really want to see it happen.”
For more information, follow Swim Paso on Facebook at facebook.com/weSwimPaso.