South Valley pool’s future treading water

The pool at South Valley Middle School is scheduled to be filled this summer.

Eastside neighborhood resident Jay Vasquez, 14, worked up a sweat playing basketball with a friend at the outdoor courts of South Valley Middle School late Friday afternoon. Vasquez said he’s looking forward to the summer, when he can cool off by jumping into the pool at SVMS.

“I go at least once a week,” he said, smiling.

But he won’t this summer – that is, if the pool at SVMS is shut down, as the Gilroy Unified School District and some city administrators have proposed.

The pool at SVMS needs a lot of work. The water turned so green last summer that the bottom couldn’t be seen, and it is in such disrepair that the GUSD has said it will cost $147,000 to get it up and running. And to assist in the cost of the repairs, the school district has asked the city to chip in $117,000.

Tom Haglund, city administrator, said that not enough children use the pool to make fixing it worth the city’s expense. Haglund told city council at last Monday’s meeting that only 20 children used the pool each day on average during the summer. (Though, the number is closer to 50 children per day if the 30 children who attend daily swim lessons for six weeks out of the summer are factored in, Haglund later said over the phone.)

Haglund said his main concerns with keeping the pool open are the expense to the city and the challenge of finding enough quality lifeguards to work at the pool. Recreation Department Director Maria De Leon presented a proposal to shut down the SVMS pool at last week’s city council meeting. The pool, located on IOOF Avenue is Gilroy’s only public swim facility east of Monterey Road.  

But most council members weren’t buying the idea just yet.

“I want to keep that pool, and there has got to be a solution to do that,” Councilman Perry Woodward said at the council meeting. Later, over the phone, Woodward said that the city has enjoyed use of the pool for many years, and that he doesn’t see it as a major obstacle to help the school district out to keep it going.

“I don’t like spending money more than any one else, but I think in this instance, it’s money well spent,” Woodward said. “If we close this pool, a whole segment of our youth will be unserved by a community pool.”

Mayor Al Pinhiero was split on the idea, saying he was uncomfortable with spending $117,000 on repairs that are the school district’s responsibility, while acknowledging that the pool provides a valuable service in a less-privileged neighborhood.

“Eastside always gets the short end of the stick,” Pinhiero said.  

Haglund said he believes that just two pools – the one at Gilroy High School, and the brand-new aquatics center at Christopher High School – will meet the recreational needs of the city. In fact, last summer when the SVMS pool had to close temporarily, Haglund said he heard “no complaints” from parents.

On Friday afternoon, children played outside on Forest Street a few blocks from SVMS.

“If the pool closed I’d be depressed because it’s going to be hot and there would be nowhere else to go,” said James Navarro, a 13-year-old in the seventh grade at SVMS, who said he uses the pool three times per week in the summer. Navarro said if the neighborhood pool shut down, he wouldn’t be able to go to the other ones because his mother wouldn’t want him walking across town.

A group of adults congregated in a front yard on Forest Street, drinking Bud Light and listening to country music from a car stereo. A few remembered swimming in the SVMS pool, which was built in 1995, when they were children and were appalled at the idea of it being shut down.

“That would put a dent in the community,” said Nick Alderete, 50. “What else are these kids going to do all summer? Drinking? Drugs? The pool is all we got over here,” Alderete said.

Liz, a 31-year-old resident of Walnut Lane who declined to give her last name said she knows many neighborhood children who use the pool.

“It’s the place for eastside kids to go,” Liz said.

 Liz said she wonders why the aquatics center at CHS that cost $3,787,000 had to be “so fancy,” while the SVMS pool has been left in disrepair.

“I mean, was the slide really necessary?” Liz said, half-jokingly.

A few other residents said that the pool keeps many children from drinking, drugs and violence. But Haglund said while that might be true for some children, the majority of them don’t use the pool, and the city should focus on providing activities for children who don’t like to swim.  

“I say that pools can provide a good wholesome activity, but we also need to develop other types of programs. There’s a lot more than 20 kids in that neighborhood,” Haglund said.

Haglund said he is also doubtful that the city would be able to hire enough lifeguards to keep all three pools operating. The new activity pool at CHS requires more lifeguards than the other pools because it is larger and the lifeguard’s view is obstructed by the slide.

Haglund estimated that the city would need 56 lifeguards if all three pools were operating, a number he said would be extremely difficult to recruit, even with extensive outreach beginning in January.

“It was hard enough to hire 24 when we had just South Valley and Gilroy High, and now we have the new pool we have to hire for,” he said.

Nick Calubaquib, manager of the Centennial Recreation Center in Morgan Hill which operates four large pools including an aquatic center with a slide and a water playground, hires about 100 part-time lifeguards for the summer.

“It’s a lot of work to recruit that many, but we generally fill all the positions that we need to fill,” Calubaquib said.

Councilman Dion Bracco spoke out against the idea of paying to repair the pool.

“If we agree to start paying for these pools, that means that $100,000 will have to come from our budget, which is a balanced budget,” Bracco said. “We’re going to have to cut something else.”

Councilwoman Cat Tucker said that as hot as Gilroy gets in the summer, pools are a necessity.

“I never thought that when I voted for the aquatics center at Christopher High, I was voting to close another pool,” Tucker said.

The council agreed on a 5-2 vote that the city should create alternative proposals to keep all three pools open.

“We feel confident we can come back with a proposal that meets all the needs of the community and that council will be happy with. It’s doable,” De Leon said over the phone.

When Vasquez, the teen on the basketball court, learned that there is a chance the pool will be shut down, he looked confused.

“Why would they do that? It keeps kids out of trouble,” he said

When asked if he would go to GHS or CHS to go swimming if the SVMS pool closes, Vasquez got a glint in his eye.

“No, I’d go to hotels, hop the fence and go swimming there.”