Palo Alto's debate over whether to expand and outsource the learn-to-swim program at the popular Rinconada Pool could be settled on Monday night, when the City Council is scheduled to consider and potentially approve the proposed changes.
The council is set to vote on a $143,000 contract with Team Sheeper, the company that also manages swimming lessons at Menlo Park's Burgess Pool. The company is no stranger to Palo Alto, having been retained by the city in each of the last two years on an emergency basis because of staffing shortages.
But whereas the prior contracts were stop-gap measures that allowed the city to meet its commitments, the new one is far more ambitious and controversial. Under the plan, Team Sheeper would offer six times more lessons than are available today, partly by utilizing the round children's pool that often sits empty, partly by offering classes in the spring and fall (in addition to the current offering of summer classes), and partly by requiring that swimming lanes be shared more frequently. Fees would also go up, though the increases would be partially offset by subsidies from the city.
For Community Services Department staff, who are recommending the switch, the new contract is a great way to both solve the staffing problem and to make the valuable resource available to more people. A new report from the department notes that City-hired part-time staff can only work up to 1,000 hours per year.
"This issue leads to staffing shortages outside of the summer season," the report notes. "In addition, pay rates for lifeguards and swim instructors are not as competitive compared to other employment opportunities for high school and college students."
Furthermore, many of the aquatics employees are students who have a limited ability to work after the summer. The pool, however, has a need for employees who can work year-round and staff the lap-swim program, the report states.
In addition to meeting its current commitments, staff has been looking for ways use the pool more efficiently and to make it available to more swimmers. The report notes that the goal is to "improve programs and services for residents, and better meet the needs and interests of residents that results in an increase in overall access to Rinconada Pool and an enhanced experience for more people."
Not everyone is buying it. In November, more than two dozen Rinconada swimmers attended a meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission to argue against the outsourcing proposal. Greatly expanding the offering of classes and forcing swimmers to share the lanes more will diminish -- rather than enhance -- the experience at the pool.
"Think about somebody who says to a football team, a baseball team and a soccer team, 'You're all going to use the same turf for your practice. You're all athletes. You'll all get a little. No problem. Your workouts will be great,'" argued Gwenn Fisher, who has swum laps at Rinconada for the past nine years. "It doesn't work. The same with the sharing of our pool. We are different types of athletes, different types of swimmers. We have different needs, different wants."
Cathy Mak, a resident who also swims at Rinconada, told the commission that the community of pool users includes swimmers of varying styles, speeds and needs. The current system, in which Rinconada Masters swimmers have exclusive pool use on some mornings and lap swimmers have exclusive use on others, has been working well, she said. If the city is to move ahead with a major change at the pool, it should proceed with caution and not rush toward privatization.
"I think the wholesale handing over (of) the pool to private management is not in the interest of the community, and it's not in the interest of the swimmers," Mak said.
The new program will also come with price increases. For group lessons, rates for residents will go up from $11 to $16 (for nonresidents, they would increase from $12 to $22). For private lessons, the cost would rise from $24 to $35 (from $26 to $63 for nonresidents). The new rates will reduce, though not eliminate, the city's subsidy of the swimming lessons (the city would still contribute $6 for each group lesson and $28 for each private lesson to reduce the cost to residents).
Rob de Geus, director of Community Services, told the crowd of swimmers at the November meeting that the goal is to both support the current swimmers and to provide service to people who don't swim because, under the current setup, the pool is not available to them.
"We need to think about how we can create opportunity for others to have access to this pool," de Geus said. "I get the sensitivity. Overcrowding doesn't work. We're not suggesting that, but we do think that some sensible, fair sharing at certain times when there is low demand is possible."
The new contract with Team Sheeper pertains only to the learn-to-swim program at Rinconada and not to the broader management of the pool or to the pool's two existing swimming programs: Rinconada Masters and Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics. That, however, may change in the months and years ahead. The staff report notes that officials will be evaluating the resource impacts for the aquatics program in the coming months and "explore the costs, opportunities and challenges of continuing to offer in-house aquatics programs versus a more comprehensive agreement with Team Sheeper Inc. to oversee the City's aquatics program."
The $143,000 contract is listed on the council's "consent calendar" for the Jan. 9 meeting, which means it will be approved with all the other items on the calendar without discussion unless at least two council members agree to pull it off consent for future deliberation.