Swimmers frown at outsourcing plan for Palo Alto's Rinconada Pool

Contract with Team Sheeper calls for more classes, sharing of lanes

David Levinson has been swimming at Rinconada Park for 40 years, and he credits the Palo Alto pool for keeping him "healthy and fit."

Levinson, 66, also credits the coaching he has received in the U.S. Master's Swimming program for improving his stroke technique and conditioning and for ultimately propelling him to national swimming titles.

But like dozens of other swimmers at the popular Palo Alto pool, Levinson has grown concerned in recent weeks over the city's proposal to significantly expand the number of lessons being offered at the pool and to outsource these lessons to a private company, Team Sheeper. The new arrangement would increase the number of swimming lessons for youth sixfold, from 5,500 to 32,000, partly through better use of the pool during low-demand hours and partly by requiring more sharing of lanes.

Community Services Department staff lauded the proposal as a sensible solution for a program that has seen surging demand and significant staffing challenges. In each of the last two summers, staffing shortages prompted the city to sign emergency short-term contracts with Team Sheeper, which also manages the swimming programs at Burgess Pool in Menlo Park, just to meet the city's commitments. Jazmin LeBlanc, senior manager of strategy and operations in the Community Services Department, told the Parks and Recreation Commission last month that employee shortages at Rinconada have "gotten to emergency levels in some cases."

In addition, she said, demand for swimming services continues to grow. Fifty percent of the youth swim lessons that the department offers are full or have waitlists. And in a survey, 70 percent of those who participated indicated that they would enroll in swim lessons if they were offered in the spring or fall.

Staff acknowledges that under the new model both pools at Rinconada would be used more. Team Sheeper's philosophy, LeBlanc wrote in a report, is "one of maximizing usage (while keeping a delicate balance to avoid crowding the pool)."

"As an example," the report stated, "during midday weekday hours, when demand for lap lanes may be low, Team Sheeper may use some lanes for lap swim and offer some lanes for lessons or aqua-aerobics."

The one-year $128,000 contract, which the City Council is scheduled to consider next month, is creating ripples of discontent among Rinconada's existing swimmers, however -- particularly those who frequent the pool during the busy morning hours. Under the existing schedule, lap swimmers have exclusive use of all 14 lanes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings while those in the Master's program have a similar arrangement on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

Levinson was one of dozens of swimmers who attended the Nov. 16 meeting of the parks commission to voice concern about the proposed change.

"You might imagine that it came as a great shock to me when I found out that, seemingly out of the blue and without consulting any of us swimmers, the city is proposing to degrade both the Rinconada Masters program and the lap-swimming program by going from the present system, which nearly every swimmer in both groups is happy with, to a poorly thought-out hybrid system that we don't need or want," Levinson said.

Anne Harrington, a lap swimmer at Rinconada, raised another concern about the contract, which will allow Team Sheeper to collect registration fees from users. Rinconada pool is a community asset, she said, and a setup in which another organization gets 90 percent of the profits while the city still bears operational and maintenance costs doesn't seem like a good deal.

"To turn it over to an outside organization, essentially giving up control while bearing costs, would truly be a privatization of a public asset," Harrington said.

Before presenting its latest proposal, Community Services Department staff had considered several alternatives, including maintaining status quo, expanding Rinconada operations using only in-house staff, and signing a contract with Team Sheeper to oversee all of the Aquatics Program, rather than just the swim-coaching components.

Enhancing the program with city staff would be "significantly more expensive" than outsourcing because it would require "an increase in number of full-time benefited City employees in order to ensure sufficient staffing and oversight of an expanded program," LeBlanc's report stated.

Nor is the city rushing to hand over the control of the entire pool to Team Sheeper. Rob de Geus, director of Community Services, told the Weekly that while there's still a possibility the city will explore the single-operator model in the future, it's "not there yet."

"We need to do a little more due diligence and public outreach to see if in fact going down that path is in the best interest of residents," de Geus said.

Staff is, however, comfortable in allowing Team Sheeper to take charge of the swimming lessons starting in 2017, a change that will raise the number of weeks in which swim lessons are being offered from nine to 30 (including 10 before the summer and 10 weeks after the summer).

Tim Sheeper, company founder and CEO, didn't dispute that lanes will be heavily used during the busy summer season. Starting in the fall, though, the number of "lane hours" that will be available to lap swimmers would increase by about 30 percent, from the existing level of 553 per week to 734.

In responding to swimmers' concerns, de Geus stressed at the Parks and Recreation meeting that the department is "not looking to change the existing programs in a negative way," as many of the emails from the public suggest.

"We want to manage and operate the pool in a responsible way to be good stewards of this great asset and see if we can have more Palo Alto residents take advantage of it," de Geus said.

He also noted that the smaller Rinconada pool sits largely dormant for much of the year, outside the summer months (the Sheeper program calls for using this pool for many of its lessons). And the Master's program, he noted, has only about 56 users and has plenty of room to grow.

"I get the sensitivity," de Geus said. "Overcrowding it doesn't work. We're not suggesting that. But we do think that some sensible and fair sharing at certain times, when there's low demand, is possible."

The Parks and Recreation Commission did not make any formal recommendations on the new contract, though most members agreed that a partnership with Team Sheeper makes sense, given the positive feedback that its programs have received from users over the past two summers. But some commissioners urged staff not to be too ambitious with expanding the program in the first year.

Commissioner Jennifer Hetterly pointed to the community's concerns and suggested that the dramatic increase in lessons could degrade the quality of swimmers' experiences.

"Maybe six times as many lessons (as today) is too ambitious for a tryout in a new season," Hetterly said. "I'd like to see something less ambitious so that we can learn something from it before we risk turning people away from the pool."


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23 people like this
Posted by Tom Kearns
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 23, 2016 at 9:18 am

Outsourcing is a really bad idea

16 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 23, 2016 at 9:58 am

I don't have problems with the city outsourcing the pool particularly if they can do a better job of providing life guards and services than the Rec. Dept. have been doing.

However, saying that, I don't like the idea of city residents becoming second class attendees to those out of town swimmers who may start coming to some of the programs and classes being offered. We have one year round public pool and in a city with a growing population due to all the increased housing, it would be no surprise to see more Palo Alto residents wanting to avail of pool classes and sessions.

There is a reason why pools are not used too much in off peak times (probably during the day) and that is because most people can't go swimming during the off peak times which is why they are off peak! Putting more programs at off peak times is unlikely to get a flood of new people wanting to use the pool off peak. Off peak is off peak for a reason!

If this is to be done, it has to be done wisely and not at the expense of residents' needs in favor of those who do not reside here!

37 people like this
Posted by Lisa Krieger
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 23, 2016 at 10:27 am

Why is it so hard for de Geus & Park and Rec to manage our own pool? The residents of Palo Alto built and paid for this wonderful resource. Now it could be turned over the larger Peninsula community, to be run by a for-profit business.

It's like turning over Foothills Park to 24 Hours Fitness.

Anyone who has been to Menlo Park's Burgess Pool has seen what has happened under Team Sheeper management: It's almost completely privitized.

There's a simple solution to the staffing problem: Pay the lifeguards more. It's a poorly kept secret that the youth who lifeguard at Rinconada are paid less than those at other city's pools, and substantially less than those at private pools, like Alpine Hills.

Sheeper's assertion that the plan would increase the number of "lane hours" is a red herring. These proposed expanded hours are at lesser times (i.e. when he doesn't want them).

Use the 2nd dormant pool, use the Eagle pool, use the Gunn/Paly pools. Don't cram more people into Rinconada!

20 people like this
Posted by Sal
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 23, 2016 at 11:06 am

Perhaps a better idea is to look into outsourcing the Community Services Department which rather than being confronted with difficult decisions related to dwindling users at the pool, can't seem to figure out to handle "surging demand and significant staffing challenges". Presumably increased use results in increased revenue, which justifies increased staff. Am I missing something here? Honestly, some of the 'solutions' from city hall are bewildering.

8 people like this
Posted by burgess swimmer
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 23, 2016 at 11:38 am

I would invite any concerned swimmers to come visit the Burgess pool. It is wonderful! Tim Sheeper and Team Sheeper have done a wonderful job of improving access and increasing community involvement for all types of swimmers and for the staff.

37 people like this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 23, 2016 at 12:07 pm

City Council, I hope you are reading this. Please don't outsource operation of Rinconada and crowd the lap lanes. A lot of us like going to Rinconada for lap swimming at what are being referred to underutilized times, to avoid overcrowding and noise. When I swim there all of the lanes are being used. Please protect adult and senior swimmers so that we can enjoy the pool when it isn't filled with kids. We are already sharing the lanes with lessons at the end of lap swim hours. I already time my visits to avoid those lessons so there is less contention for lanes. I treasure Rinconada and its serene setting adjacent to a redwood grove. (BTW someone needs to give those redwoods some water - they don't look too good.) I've been going to Rinconada Pool for 35 years and would be extremely upset to see it privatized and turned into a crowded, expensive, unappealing mess. Does EVERYTHING I used to like about Palo Alto have to be ruined?

10 people like this
Posted by rick
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 23, 2016 at 12:36 pm

burgess was the worst swimming and lesson experience my family ever had - please dont ruin rinconada like that

3 people like this
Posted by More pools
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 23, 2016 at 12:43 pm

Two Middle Schools also have pools. Jordan on Middlefield and JLS on East Meadow.

7 people like this
Posted by northtown
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 23, 2016 at 1:05 pm

We need more and better hours for our pool! Lap swimmers are certainly one part of what we need to address. [It seems they love what they currently get out of the pool.] But the OTHER part is the whole community, especially our KIDS, who never have the pool when and how then need it.

I don't know if we need to outsource to get better usage out of this for our kids. I really don't know, but I'm glad we're talking about how underutilized this wonderful resource is!

BTW, who is Ms. Leblanc and/or her role? I follow the city, and I've never heard of her. I do like that her comment is about UTILIZING our resources better, pool and otherwise.

11 people like this
Posted by Resident Swimmer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 23, 2016 at 1:07 pm

As a year-round mid-day lap swimmer, I was both shocked and unhappy to read the Team Sheeper proposal. There is a subtle incentive to favor non-residents (higher fees and no City subsidy), when the Parks and Rec. Master Plan and survey indicate PA residents are asking for more swim lessons and Recreation hours...not more lap hours.
Are we going to give away our Community's asset to a profit making source? At 90% profit to 10% for the City while we pay to maintain,pay for utilities, and improvements feels preposterous.
Expanded pool sharing needs to remain balanced and fair to the four user groups; even tho this is not the most desirable time of year to begin outdoor swimming, there are more new residents who are swimming midday and I absolutely agree,"Off peak is off peak for a reason!"...we are into a project, volunteering,back at work, doing errands etc.
Expanded child use will require increased maintenance to avoid the problems of overflow of trash and slippery floors.

4 people like this
Posted by E Robinson
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 23, 2016 at 1:30 pm

I swim both at Riconada and Menlo Burgess Pool where Team Sheeper operates. The Burgess pool is so well run. You can choose to swim at many different times a day, because the pool is open. I get to see young children enjoying the water and hope that will stay with them for a life time. Mostly, there are life guards who have full time jobs; they can actually earn an income, instead of showing up at 5am till 9am, closing. Opening again for 2-4 hours in pm. Riconada's admin staff sometimes has to fill in as life guards! I believe getting assistant from the Sheeper squad will only enhance swim life at Rinconada. How will swimmers be hurt from better staffing?

5 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 23, 2016 at 5:14 pm

I live 2 blocks from this pool and have tried and failed to register either of my kids for swim lessons for the past three years. No lessons are offered outside of working hours (when we are at work and the kids are in preschool). So I arranged to take time off of work to make this happen--and found that enrolling appears to be impossible.

This year it was so popular that they sold out before the catalog was even printed, so you'd not even realize the lessons existed from the city's publications. (I'd love to know the secret to signing up before the catalog is issued, but I've not got learned it.)

As a result I've been trying to get my kids into lessons at the JCC (and succeeded twice -- they are also very popular).

So if this results in making it possible to teach my kids to swim--hooray!

6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 23, 2016 at 5:23 pm

This proposal doesn't address the real problem. Palo Alto needs to outsource the entire Community Services Department which clearly can't run a community pool or much else.

7 people like this
Posted by rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 23, 2016 at 6:40 pm

If there is such demand for swim lessons for Palo Alto residents, let's make better use of the High School pools. Doing so would also make it easier for many residents to have lessons in or closer to where they live. We should not privatize maintenance nor programs at Rinconada pool, and it sounds like we should be paying our guards more.

8 people like this
Posted by School pools are cool
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 23, 2016 at 7:08 pm

Demand for pools is highest in the summer, which is exactly when the middle school and high school pools are empty!

8 people like this
Posted by Downtown Resident
a resident of University South
on Dec 23, 2016 at 7:41 pm

I am so thankful the city is finally taking a look at the under-utilized resource of the community pool. I use Burgees pool because they have great hours, great swim lessons, great summer camps for my kids - everything you need from a pool. Rinconada has nothing useful for working families. It has been a frustration for me for the 6 years I have gone to Menlo Park. The staff there is amazing and I think it would be great if we could have something similar here in Palo Alto.

I am also very disappointed in Palo Alto Weekly for their clearly biased slant in this article. Sure, some non-resident and resident retirees complained, but other resident families said we would love to be able to better use the pool resource. Why are you not reporting on the rest of us who think this is an amazing idea and are so grateful that the city hired LeBlanc and that she is looking at how we can better utilize our community resource. It is not a community resource right now, because most of the community cannot use it. So, some swimmers may have to shower with children, that is not a reasonable reason to complain about the cities effort to make sure all residents can take advantage of community resources.

14 people like this
Posted by Outsource it already!
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 23, 2016 at 10:59 pm

Let's face facts. The reason that many resources in Palo Alto have to be outsourced is that city employees don't really care about doing a good job. At the pool they don't care if there are 40 people there or 100, they still get paid the same. There is no incentive for city employees to try to improve, to schedule longer hours or to work harder and smarter. A few people who have individual lanes at the pool don't want more people there but many more could be using this community resource if we had competent people to run it well, increase programs and open longer hours. Further with the unions running the city and the inability to get rid of under performing city staff it costs too much for the city to do this themselves even if they could find good staff to run the pool. The unions with their greedy underfunded pensions with health benefits at 55 are driving cities that want to provide services to outsource programs. The same problem is driving the outsourcing of the animal shelter. Similar to the pool, for decades city employees who had no incentive and no leadership to improve and do a good job sat at that facility and did virtually nothing to help homeless dogs, cats and other animals in the bay area and beyond. They didn't go to other facilities to "rescue" animals by bringing them to our shelter to find homes, they never run pet fairs, they didn't run behavior, training or husbandry classes, they didn't run summer or school break programs for students - all of which are common at other facilities. They basically sat there getting a city pay check and waiting to retire at full wages and health care for doing so little for animals. Running a shelter takes passionate people who want to save animals. Running a pool facility takes passionate people who want to let people swim, play water polo, teach swimming to kids and keep the pools full and fun. The city seems to be unable to hire competent people with a passion to get the jobs done. Outsourcing is a win - win cheaper and better for city residents. Do it already.

4 people like this
Posted by mattie
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 25, 2016 at 1:56 pm

This isn't a knock at Mr. Levinson, but doesn't it seem strange that the first 3 paragraphs credit the coaching/lessons he received at Rinconada for his life-long love of swimming, and then knock the proposal to expand current lessons for Palo Alto's current crop of kids?

15 people like this
Posted by Eric
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 25, 2016 at 10:46 pm

Perhaps if the Community Services Department can not manage a community pool, a well used asset, City Council might consider taking a closer look at what exactly the Community Services Department is doing with our taxes.

19 people like this
Posted by Former Lifeguard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 26, 2016 at 6:45 pm

The problem isn't that the leadership is doing a bad job running the pool. The reason for the reduced lessons and limited pool hours/availability is due to the fact that fewer and fewer Palo Alto teens are applying to be lifeguards. Seven years ago, the program had about 90 applicants to fill 15 spots for the summer (to make up a staff of about 80). In the past few years, the number of applicants has drastically decreased, and even with a close to 100% hire rate the leadership can barely put together a staff of maybe 50 (around 80 are needed to allow the hundreds of patrons to swim each day while also providing ample lessons). In my opinion, the problem is due to the increased coddling of Palo Alto children, and the fact that they think their fancy unpaid internships provide more college-application substance than a paid job where you interact with (and sometimes save the lives of) hundreds of residents each day. For the record, I believe that a paid job as a lifeguard provides much more life experience and looks better for admissions committees than an unpaid summer of filing paperwork. Regardless, a way that the pool will be able to rebound is by offering a higher starting salary than is currently offered, not a large request given that many private pools (including Stanford) pay several dollars an hour more than Palo Alto. The leadership have done their job by working overtime and putting out numerous ads for lifeguard employment.... but nothing will change until the City can offer higher wages and/or the youth of Palo Alto realize the benefit of holding a responsible and paying job. It would be a shame to see Rinconada privatized, the programs and recreation swim offered at the pool have been a Palo Alto staple for decades, and I would hate to see the loss of such a historic and beneficial program.

12 people like this
Posted by SwimFanatic
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 30, 2016 at 11:10 pm

Burgess Pool provides fair warning of the consequences of privatization. Burgess is grossly over-subscribed and over-used. Sheeper is in business and must necessarily maximize their profit. Like an airline: they need to keep the stock of swim lanes in use at all times. They are optimizers. I often wondered why the pool water at Burgess tasted salty. I kept asking if they had been innovating with some new salt-water strategy. But no. It's salty for the simple reason that too many people have been sweating into the pool or too many years. It's actually quite disgusting. If that's the sort of pool we want in Palo Alto, then so be it. But recognize the consequences of those choices. Also - the Masters program at Burgess is grossly inequitable to regular lap swimmers. They occupy essentially all available lanes during all the most convenient swim hours, relegating lap swimmers to odd hours in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, (i.e.) regular business hours. Meanwhile, after-hours are completely jammed with hoards of children's swim classes. Either you need to have some very unorthodoxy work schedule, or you give up lap swimming at Burgess Pool. It's really a miserable place. Dirty, stressful, and miserable. And somebody wants to adopt that as the model for Palo Alto? Bad choice. I gave up on Burgess ages ago. I swim at Stanford. It's big and clean and beautiful. A healthy and relaxing experience. If you don't have access to some other decent swimming pool like Stanford, I recommend that you do everything possible to prevent this proposal from happening.

Like this comment
Posted by Joy
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 2, 2017 at 10:39 am

If hiring a 3rd party management service means more hours for all, I think it is an awesome idea. It's a COMMUNITY pool that should be available to EVERYONE. The essential goal is for people to be HEALTHIER. I can understand some peoples concerns about overcrowding. Perhaps, there should be a limit of swimmers per lane (via sign-up). You can have specific lanes for faster/long-distant swimmers, slower/long-distant swimmers, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 2, 2017 at 11:12 am

I'm a PA resident and participate in Team Sheeper's Aquafit classes, and also swim laps at Burgess pools. I find the classes are well run and many participants have developed close social ties. Unlike "Swim Fanatic", I think the water is exceptionally clean, and I prefer salty to chlorine. I don't think the salt is from too many swimmers, as Swim Fanatic stated. Also, as a non-resident, I am not charged extra for Aquafit classes. However, non-resident lap swimmers do pay a slightly higher fee.

3 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of University South
on Jan 8, 2017 at 12:52 am

I appreciate the debate and arguments for not outsourcing Palo Alto's aquatic services. As a Palo Alto resident, aquatics professional with over 10 years of experience, and position as a swim instructor at Stanford University, I submit the following comments:

1. I am an aquatics professional who has served Team Sheeper respectfully and swum in the masters swim program at the Menlo Park facility.
2. I commend Team Sheeper for operating his successful aquatic programs at the Menlo Park facility and other facilities.
3. I have applied to teach swim lessons for Palo Alto, but have not been successful or told to return in the spring by the aquatics coordinator twice. The aquatics program at present does not seem to be well managed or be meeting the demand for aquatic services to thrive. There is the appearance of aquatic programs/services without a clear, concrete vision, action plan, and a driver as Team Sheeper would be. So, I can appreciate the perceived benefits outsourcing would provide.
4. I believe the knowledge, skill, and resources for an aquatics program that does meet the demand of Palo Altans exists in Palo Alto. Team Sheeper is a for profit business enterprise. Is this what Palo Alto fiscally wants or needs?
5. I propose Team Sheeper be paid to advise Palo Alto, so Palo Alto managers can learn how to build and sustain aquatic programs that can thrive--in Palo Alto, for Palo Altans, by Palo Altans. Thank you for the opportunity to share my comments. I welcome your feedback.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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