Pool time puts Newport High School swim team at odds with aquatic center

PHOTO BY SHELBY WOLFE/Newport News Times | Two people are seen swimming laps in the eight-lane indoor pool at the Newport Aquatic Center on Monday, Nov. 5.

NEWPORT — A disagreement over the scheduled practice times of the Newport High School swim team was brought before the Newport City Council on Monday, with dozens of swim team members, parents and aquatic center regulars in attendance. After 49 minutes of discussion, the council directed city manager Spencer Nebel to negotiate a temporary solution before bringing a full report back for the Nov. 19 meeting.

Last year, the swim team enjoyed 74.5 lane hours of practice time in the city pool each week. This year, that number is slated to go down — not any lower than the 2016-17 schedule, but low enough that the team was unhappy. Parks and Recreation Director Jim Protiva explained that the schedule was the best they could do without displacing paying pool patrons.

“We attempted to work with current users and were able to get some concession from the local club team for two lanes and did not schedule an Aqua Zumba class,” Protiva explained in his report to the council. “However, there were still scheduled lap swims and boot camps that prevented the same schedule this year.”

The high school swim team does not pay a fee to use the facilities due to a long-standing cooperative use agreement between the district and the city. In this agreement, both parties offer free use of certain facilities and equipment in exchange for free use of the other’s. The swimming pool is included among the resources made available by the city.

The agreement also states that the schedule for use of facilities “will be so arranged as to reduce any conflict between the school and the Park and Recreation Department use.”

However, there have been two schedules put forward, neither of which were found to be acceptable by the swim team’s coach and parents. The first is nearly identical to last year’s schedule, with one exception: on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the team of approximately 50 swimmers would have use of only two lanes from 6 to 7 p.m. — last year, they had use of four lanes for the first 30 minutes of that hour and use of five for the second half hour. This scheduling decreases the amount of lane time the team has for practice by 6.5 hours.

After the team rejected the first schedule, a second recommendation was made: a schedule which would allow the team use of all eight lanes for two hours — Monday through Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. This scheduling would increase the team’s lane hours 5.5 hours over last year’s schedule, without counting the morning hours that the they could use in addition.

Wayne Spencer, Newport High School’s athletic director, told Parks and Recreation staff that those hours wouldn’t be desirable to the students and parents of the team.

At the Nov. 5 city council meeting, parents said they were most concerned about transparency from the aquatic center — they stated that they had been told that there would be negative fiscal impact on the center if they prioritized the swim team during their “peak hours” of 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Swim team parent Franz Consenza told the council that the parents asked to see data which supports that, because it did not match up with their observations. However, they were not provided with supporting data.

“Due to the lack of transparency and any valid data, we are unfortunately left to conclude that the 2018-2019 practice schedule was developed following an arbitrary decision-making process,” said Consenza.

Multiple parents noted that if there was truly a negative financial impact on the center by maintaining the previous year’s schedule, then they would be willing to negotiate based on that, but that they had not seen that in the data they were provided.

Others spoke before the council, including previous swim team members and parents, as well as current pool users, many advocating for compromise or allowing the team the same hours as the previous year.

Those speaking against keeping the same schedule also advocated for compromise, stating that they didn’t want to take opportunity away from the children, only to have the same access to the pool — one participant expressing that that exercise group is her “life.”

On both sides, speakers said this has been a long-running issue, even at the old pool. Many advocated for cancelling open lap swim and allowing both classes and the swim team to have four lanes each during those times.

After testimonies from community members, Nebel spoke to the council.

“I think there’s an opportunity for us to bring folks together to talk about these issues, to see where we’re at and bring a report back to the next city council meeting,” said Nebel.

He noted that it will be “a difficult thing to sort out” but that he was willing to work on it and consider the various competing interests at the pool and bring back a recommendation to the council on Nov. 19.

Councilor David Allen noted that swim practice begins next week, presenting a need to expedite the process of resolving this issue, but also noted that there was not enough information available at the meeting for them to make a decision that night.

Councilor Wendy Engler asked Nebel to make it a top priority beginning Nov. 6 and to “get representatives from all sides together.”

The council unanimously moved to refer the issue to the city administration for a report at the Nov. 19 city council meeting, while also pulling together a meeting of all impacted users to discuss if a temporary arrangement could be made before that date.

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