Sitka senator opposes Dunleavy’s plan to sell new aquatics center

The parking lot outside the Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatics Center in Sitka. (Photo by Katherine Rose/KCAW)

Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy wants to sell the Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatics Center — before the brand-new, $26 million facility has even opened to the public.

The pool, which serves the state-run Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka, is among numerous cuts proposed by the governor in his budget.

Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, however, thinks the pool should be opened and given the chance to pay its own way with revenues at the door.

The new Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatics Center made a big splash among students, when it was briefly opened last spring for a quick swim. It was then shuttered until January, when students — but not the general public — were allowed in.

MEHS Superintendent Janelle Vanasse said the project is important and necessary for instruction at MEHS.

“It’s been really great to get our kids in swimming. Many, many, many of our students come from rural communities that are on the water, but very dangerous water,” Vanasse said. “And not the kind of water that you grow up in recreationally swimming.”

Vanasse said they have three classes right now that are using the pool: Some are already strong swimmers, but several are just learning. And it’s absolutely integral, she said, that the school gives them opportunities to learn.

“I came from Western Alaska … about 50 percent of our students come from Western Alaska. That’s the area with the largest, the highest rates of drowning,” Vanasse said. “My time out there, it was critical to get a swimming pool for that exact reason, for safety reasons.”

When Dunleavy’s proposed budget was released on Feb. 13, numerous organizations across the state saw big cuts, including public schools, ferries and higher education. But this capital project was especially near-and-dear to the heart of Stedman, who now co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. The governor’s budget cuts $250,000 in operating funds that were approved by the Legislature last year for the Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatics Center. The budget also includes a note that says the governor intends to sell or transfer the asset, making the $250,000 in funding unnecessary.

So when it comes to the future of the pool, the Republican state senator does not mince words.

“I think it’s about as likely that the state is going to sell Mt. Edgecumbe High School swimming pool as we are going to sell the governor’s mansion with the governor in it,” Stedman said. “They can sell the pool with me in it when they sell the governor’s mansion with him in it.”

Stedman has been focused on getting an aquatic center for MEHS students for over eight years. They broke ground on the $26 million facility in 2016, and it opened for student use in January this year.

Stedman is hopeful that there’s room in the operating budget to keep the pool open for another year so it can begin to make money and pay for itself.

“There’s language in the operating budget currently, proposed by the governor, to roll the funds forward for this year, of the pool, roll them into 2020,” Stedman said. “Those funds should enable the pool to operate and … generate revenue to offset its operating costs.”

In the meantime, Vanasse is unsure what will happen next, or how the future of the pool will play out in the Legislature.

“It’s clear that the intention in the budget is for Mt. Edgecumbe or the state of Alaska to not be operating the Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatic Center,” Vanasse said. “What that may mean is still really, I think, in the discussion phase.”

At the very least, it would be a loss for Mt. Edgecumbe students, who have finally had a chance to learn to swim. Not that education must always be the top priority. Vanasse said they have been able to open the pool a few times — just for fun.

“Recreationally, we’ve got 400 students that, you know, we need to make their life enriching as well as academic, so it’s really great to have some evening swims,” she said.

But fun doesn’t keep the lights on and the water warm at the Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatics Center.