Commentary: Closing Pools Will Be an Expensive Mistake By BILL HAMILTON

Friday August 05, 2005

Summer in Berkeley is wonderful. No need for reservations at restaurants, parking galore, and best of all we have our neighborhood pools for the whole family. When I see the Willard Pool full of kids and families I want to look around for the oak tree with the rope swing. Even though there are no rope swings around these swimming holes, Willard, King and West Campus pools are the destination (usually within walking distance) for kids and families looking to share the magic of aquatic recreation. In the shallow pool a wide-eyed tiny tot grips her mom’s neck while being lowered for the first time into the water. In the deep pool two teenaged boys are trying to catch the eye of a sunbathing girl by doing outrageous cannon balls into the water. In the long pool several adults are doing laps while a lifeguard makes suggestions about swim technique.  

The three outdoor city pools are fantastic public facilities in all seasons where most residents of all ages and conditions can learn water safety, practice healthy lifestyles, and participate in team recreation and community building. The pools are a valuable and vital part of Berkeley life. 

Unfortunately two pools, probably Willard and King, will be closed for nine months (the school year) from the beginning of September through next May due to city budget and service cuts and due to the refusal of Berkeley Unified School District to participate in the use and maintenance of the shared pools. Traditionally, King and Willard Middle schools have offered swimming as a physical education class from September to October and April to May. To avoid having to help share the costs of pool maintenance during these periods the superintendent and School Board ended the pool P.E. classes at King and Willard schools, thus helping to force pool closures for everyone during the prime fall and spring seasons. Obviously BUSD was not aware of the importance of the community pools for health, safety and recreation for children and adults in our community. 

What will be the practical results of these closures? Middle school kids at King and Willard will not learn water safety; will not learn the health benefits of a regular exercise program; and will be less likely to take up the sport of swimming later on in high school and collage. Schools must take some responsibility for the obesity epidemic among today’s youth population. These cuts will hurt the underserved population the most since wealthier parents can always enroll their kids in private swim teams such as the Bears. 

Many in the swim community are using swimming to counter health problems that come from aging. My friends Gael and Stefan suffer from chronic back and hip pain. My back stiffens up with too many days off. We have to swim in order to avoid expensive medicine and doctor bills. We swim proactively and use the pools all year long. 

Many established swim programs such as Yassir’s very popular senior aerobics class at West Campus and Blythe Lucero’s wonderful Berkeley Aquatic Masters (BAM) workouts at both West Campus and King will be shoved into one pool with the lap swimmers forcing overcrowding and the eventual fall off of patrons. Those patrons willing to stay in Berkeley they will be forced to travel across town using the roadways and parking where walking and biking were more appropriate before. In the process the city will lose many talented and helpful aquatic staff. The quality of life for many people will be affected. 

BUSD has made a terrible mistake by ending the swim P.E. classes and not helping to fund the pools, a marvelous shared asset with the community, a community that has been very generous with the school district. In years past the Berkeley High swim teams used Willard pool for training and swim meets, pushing out public swimmers, while not contributing to maintenance costs. Now Berkeley High has a brand new and very expensive pool which is off limits to the community and continues to ignore the needs of its middle school population and the community with regards to health, safety and recreation.  

For parents who want swimming to be part of their child’s school experience contact your school principal, your School Board and the superintendent of schools and request that they work with the city to help support the pools and aquatic education. Public swimmers need to stay involved to expand the wonderful aquatic experience to the whole community. This is a special situation that finds the community and BUSD in the same boat. Let’s work together to keep it afloat. 


Bill Hamilton is a member of the United Pool Council.