The brand new Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatic Center in Sitka has been open to students for all of two semesters, and is scheduled now to be closed — permanently — at the end of December. The $26 million facility was approved by Alaska voters in a bond package nine years ago — but Gov. Mike Dunleavy this summer vetoed the pool’s “receipt authority” — in other words, the pool’s ability to charge the public at the door, and cover some of its own operating costs.
Temperatures outside may be dropping, but inside the Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatic Center, it’s pleasantly balmy.
Students are doing laps back and forth across the big, glistening pool. A couple of teens are taking turns on the diving board. No one is using the water slide or the aqua blue climbing wall right now — this is class time, not open swim.
After about an hour, the students get out of the water to dry off in the locker room. Sophomore Linea Chase started taking classes at the aquatic center. She says her strongest stroke is the breast stroke.
“But at the same time, I’m getting better at doing a mermaid underwater,” she says.
Chase is from Bethel. She says there is a pool there, and they offer lessons sometimes, but she also notes the reason this pool was built: Many Mt. Edgecumbe students don’t have a place to learn to swim in their hometowns. Often remote villages, any nearby waters are likely fast-moving and cold.
“Most of the time there are a lot of boats passing so sometimes it’s not safe,” she says.
It’s only the second semester the pool has been open to students, and it may be the last, because state budget cuts are forcing the pool to fully close.
“We opened up to the kiddos in January. We were doing great and had swim lessons in place that were just going phenomenally. I knew there was a chance,” she said. “Came in July 1st, no emails, nothing, I’m like, ‘Yay, we made it.’”
Shellie Dunn is the pool manager. She used to manage the Blatchley Pool, and she was thrilled with the opportunity to run the new aquatic center.
She says the warmer saltwater at the aquatic center is good for those who use the pool for therapy, babies, and the elderly, while the colder, freshwater pool at Blatchley is good for training for the Alaska State Troopers and the U.S. Coast Guard. Dunn had already begun hosting new programs for the public on July 1st when she got the call.
“It was around 7:30 and a swimmer was coming in who does therapy and was going to be in the pool for half an hour, and I was informed at that point, that I could no longer take money,” she said.
“They didn’t close the pool- they took away my authority to take receipt. So I can’t stay open if I’m not taking in money to pay people to be here.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the pool’s receipt authority, around $250,000. So even if Dunn had the staff to open the pool, she can’t earn the revenue needed to operate it. The pool was funded as part of a statewide bond package approved by the voters in 2010. The legislature later appropriated an additional $6 million to complete the $26 million project. The estimated annual cost to operate the pool was $650,000. Dunn says that revenues were never expected to cover that entire amount.
“With funding, I was supposed to at least try to meet half of that, if not a little bit better. I think we could have done that. We were definitely building momentum. I do think we could have done that,” she said. “We were definitely building momentum. At this point it’s hard to keep the community involved. I’m losing interest, honestly, and that’s not the place I want to be.”
They hoped in the second round of budget vetoes, some funds would be restored, but the pool wasn’t so lucky.
“At that time we made the decision to close the pool and just have it open for Edgecumbe kids to try to get them at least through one more semester,” Dunn said. “We’ve been treading water ever since.”
Sen. Bert Stedman has been focused on getting an aquatic center for MEHS students for at least a decade. And he thinks says the receipt authority is chump change compared to the numerous other projects from the 2010 bond package that were completed in other parts of the state.
“There is an issue- I think it’s gonna spill over into the next statewide bond package discussion,” Stedman said. “Why would rural Alaska support railbelt’s desire to issue general obligation bonds statewide when all they do is get crapped on by their projects, when it comes to minuscule appropriation amounts in comparison to what is going into the railbelt.”
“$250,000 in receipt authority is a joke compared to $5.2 million in cash,” he said.
Stedman says he’s going to keep working with Department of Education to try to find a way to get receipt authority and circumvent the funding cut.
“If that’s available and workable that would be great,” he said. “If not, I’m stuck in the mud until the next legislative process starts in January. But the pool will be front and center again in January, I can assure you.”
But even if the pool is shuttered, it could still cost the state money going forward. Dunn says ongoing maintenance is a must. And the pool can’t be emptied for longer than is typically required for maintenance, because the new plaster must remain hydrated or it could crack and need to be repaired or even replaced.
“If they do close it down December 18, they can’t just empty it. It voids all warranty- it would be garbage at that point,” Dunn said. “The water’s gotta stay in and it’s gotta stay at a certain temperature. So I don’t know how they’re gonna pay for that.”
Requests for comment from the governor’s office were not returned by press time. The line item in the state’s budget says the “facilities property disposal report recommends to sell or transfer the Center.” But who would they sell it to? The city? Faced with its own budget crises in city hall and the school district, buying a pool isn’t likely on Sitka’s radar right now.
Dunn says an aquatic center wasn’t really on the radar for students years ago when the project was first funded. Then it was built and it became critical. She remembers in the spring, she was teaching a lifeguarding class — the biggest class she’d ever taught — and one day she had to cancel. Dunn offered an apology to her students for the cancellation, which was declined.
“I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I feel horrible that we’re not able to have class this week.’ And he was like, ‘You don’t need to apologize. We’ve got a pool. There’s nothing you can do to make us feel sad about that,'” Dunn said. “And now they don’t. I personally feel like it was kind of forced on them a little bit. And now they love it and now it’s being taken away. That’s brutal, in my opinion, that’s absolutely brutal.”