Deep divisions are emerging between the Minneapolis school board and interim superintendent Michael Goar over an unlikely issue: a swimming pool.
The board wants the school district to spend at least $2 million to help Minneapolis park officials renovate the Phillips Community Pool into an eight-lane facility, offering better access to swimming lessons and competitive swimming programs.
Goar surprised board members at a recent meeting when he expressed reservations about the cash-strapped district spending so much on a single sport.
“I don’t think you should be condescending and speak to us like we don’t get there are a lot of issues,” school board finance chair Rebecca Gagnon said in an interview, reacting to Goar’s insistence that the district had other sports needs to consider. “Obviously we do, but this is one of them, and it’s important and we want it to be worked out in a way that it actually happens.”
Goar is a leading contender to take over the superintendent job permanently, but the issue has caused a rare rift with a board that has been strongly supportive of him.
Goar declined to comment Tuesday, saying through a spokeswoman that he does not yet have a recommendation for the board and will analyze what pool spending would mean for the district.
The pool project has been underway since 2011, with funding coming from various private donors, local colleges, the county, the state Legislature and the school board.
But the project has come up well short on funding. In April, the Park Board voted to move forward with building the pool even though it might have to take out a $2 million loan. But the Park Board only approved a six-lane pool, falling short of the larger pool that school board members say they backed.
Minneapolis Swims, the booster group behind the pool, approached the district with the idea of spending an additional $2 million for the eight-lane pool. The district has already committed $150,000 annually for the next five years to cover operating expenses.
School board members strongly back the Phillips project and want to spend more money opening a second, eight-lane pool at Franklin Middle School in north Minneapolis.
At a recent finance committee meeting, Goar told several board members that the district should not be investing so much in any single sport, or any single facility, before the district looks at its entire athletic facility needs.
He proposed a comprehensive study of the entire athletics department to determine how many students participate in swimming, the condition of existing facilities and the financial impact that one or both pools could have on the district.
Board members, including Gagnon and Carla Bates, pushed back hard against Goar, saying the district has already looked at these issues.
“The board is very interested in making these pools happen,” Bates told Goar at the meeting. “I don’t want this to get lost in the broader discussion because that broader discussion kills so many good things in this city.”
Gagnon said many board members have been involved with the renovations at the Phillips pool for years. It’s an issue that unites them, even when they differ on other issues. She said the pools are a worthy investment because many area students do not know how to swim and are at increased risk of drowning.
“The superintendents work for the boards. When we ask for something to happen as a collective voice, it should happen,” Gagnon said. “There should be no doubt that it should happen. It shouldn’t be, you are going to go in and gather evidence that you can then use to argue it shouldn’t happen.”
Equity, business investment
Denny Bennett, Minneapolis Swims director, said he proposed that the district make a $2.5 million matching grant offer to the Park Board, in exchange for half ownership of the facility. With the Park Board $2.5 million investment, that would be enough to build the eight-lane pool. He also said the district could ask that their $150,000 annual maintenance commitment be eliminated.
Board members want an eight-lane pool so schools have access to a full-size competitive pool where high school swim teams could practice and compete. Right now, the district does not own a full-size competitive pool. It pays the University of Minnesota about $5,000 to host swim meets, according to Bennett.
Gagnon said investing in the eight-lane pool is not only about equity but also makes financial sense. She said the district could recoup money by renting out the facility or hosting events, something it would not be able to do with a six-lane pool.
Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller met with Goar on Friday and sent him budget projections for the two different pools. Both pool proposals are expected to run an annual deficit.