Can the Lake Oswego School District replace its pool for $7 million?
When Lake Oswego voters approved a $187 million school bond last May, one of the included line items was a $7 million allocation to "update or replace (the district) pool due to deteriorating structural components."
But that phrasing has become controversial in recent weeks after the Lake Oswego School Board asked the City Council to consider joining the pool replacement project and adding additional funding.
"We are concerned that $7 million may not be enough to build a new pool that meets the needs of the district and the city," board member Bob Barman told the council in December, reading a statement on behalf of the entire board.
If the City says yes, Barman said, then Lake Oswego will get a new and larger pool that can be shared by both the district and the community. That's something the board says is sorely needed — in addition to being deteriorated beyond repair, LOSD officials say, the current pool is overcrowded and far too small to meet the demands of both students and residents.
But if the City declines and no other private or public partners are found, then the district will be left with only the bond money. And according to a study commissioned by the School Board while the bond was being drafted, $7 million might not be enough to build any kind of replacement facility.
The study, performed by Robertson Sherwood Architects, listed five possible options for a replacement pool, ranging from a six-lane, 25-yard pool to an Olympic-size 50-meter pool. But all five options carried an estimated cost greater than $7 million.
Even the cheapest option, which would be slightly smaller than the existing pool, carried an estimated price tag of $8.4 million. An in-kind replacement would cost $9.9 million, the study said, and the School Board's preferred option — which would feature a replacement pool of equal size and a smaller companion pool for warm-water activities — would cost $12 million.
A second study, commissioned by the Lake Oswego Swim Club last summer and conducted by the firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, recommended a two-pool facility with a 50-meter pool and a smaller, warm-water companion pool, at a total estimated cost of $13.1 million. The study estimated the cost of an in-kind replacement to be $9 million.
At the City Council meeting in December, Councilors John LaMotte and Jeff Gudman both sought to verify that the bond's $7 million allocation would be enough for a replacement pool of equal size if the City declined to chip in for a bigger one. Barman's answer: probably.
He and other board members later told The Review that the initial survey didn't account for potential cost-saving opportunities in the district, and multiple board members expressed confidence that they could make $7 million work if necessary.
But Randy Miller, the LOSD's executive director of project management, said last week that the $7 million was only intended as an allocation and that more research would need to be done to see if it would be sufficient on its own.
"I think if we only had $7 million, from the project standpoint, we would have to do a study and see what could be accomplished," he told The Review. "Can we do a single 25-meter pool with six or eight lanes? What are ways we might reduce that cost? Then we'd go back to the board and say, 'These are the one or two options we've identified.'"
The December meeting wasn't the first time the $7 million question has been raised. The LOSD board first pitched the idea of a joint pool project to the City Council at a meeting in February 2017, when the board asked councilors to endorse the overall bond measure.
During that meeting, board members described their preferred two-pool replacement facility and its estimated $12 million price tag. That prompted Councilor Theresa Kohlhoff to ask whether the proposed $7 million in the bond alone would be enough for a replacement pool of equal size.
"That could get us close," replied then-board member Sarah Howell. "And that might be a choice that we make after the bond passes."
Kohlhoff pressed the issue, arguing that the bond text presented the $7 million as full funding for a pool replacement. Voters will expect to get a new pool if they vote for the bond, she said.
"If (as an average Lake Oswego voter) I go out and say, 'This is very cool,' but then you tell me that we may or may not get this pool, I'm going to feel like I've been scammed," she said.
School Board members replied that the $7 million would be sufficient, but again emphasized the need for a larger facility. The existing eight-lane, 25-yard pool serves as a community hub for a variety of teams, clubs and individuals and is often overcrowded, with about 200-250 visitors on a weekday and 100-150 on a weekend.
One year later, the discussion is still in the same place.
Former board member John Wendland told The Review last week that the $7 million in the bond was intended primarily as an initial investment toward a larger pool, to be supplemented by the City or some other partner. But in the event that a partner could not be found, he said, the backup option would be to use the $7 million to fund a simple in-kind replacement.
Current board members Barman and John Wallin also told The Review that the cost estimates in the Robertson Sherwood study were highly preliminary and can't be viewed as definitive. The final costs could end up being lower, they said, in particular because the survey didn't consider where the pool might eventually be built.
If, for example, the new pool were to be located on the Lakeridge Junior High School campus, the board members said, it could be constructed at the same time as the new school building.
"When you have a construction project going, whether it's at Lakeridge Junior High or one of our other projects, you can save costs," Barman said. "When you're doing traffic studies and engineering and design and all that stuff, layering in a pool is the most cost-effective time to do it."
Why $7 million?
During the February 2017 meeting with the council, Howell also brought up what she described as the "unspoken question" in the discussion: Why didn't the School Board allocate enough money in the bond to pay for its preferred pool?
"We heard from the community that they would only accept a certain (property tax) rate increase," she said, "and the board wanted to be conservative and make this bond focused on operational needs."
The problem, board members said, was that there wasn't time to figure out an exact minimum cost for the pool because the project was added to the bond at a very late stage in its development process. So the $7 million figure was chosen as "a placeholder," Barman told The Review last week
The district had originally planned to address the pool issue at a later time, Wallin and Barman told The Review, but a combination of community feedback and the pool's deteriorating condition convinced the board to find a way to add it to the bond package, and the group commissioned the Robertson Sherwood study in September 2016.
"During this whole time we were discussing it, there were chunks of the walls falling off and sinks falling off (in the pool building), and it became very clear we had to do something," Wallin said. "And we needed to think about how much we thought was the right amount."
The study was completed and presented to the School Board at a meeting on Oct. 5, 2016, just a few days before the deadline to finalize the measure for the May 2017 ballot. Board members discussed the five options proposed by the Robertson Sherwood study, and a majority endorsed the two-pool scenario as their preferred outcome.
But the bond's cost was $180 million at the time, and board members all agreed that adding the full $12 million for a pool would be too much. Instead, the group agreed to add partial funding and then ask the City for the remainder at a later date.
At the time, the bond's resulting tax rate increase was estimated to be $0.95 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The board opted to raise that figure to $0.99, with the goal of keeping the overall rate increase below $1. The result: $7 million was the maximum that could be allocated to the pool.
(The actual increase ended up being $1.14 per $1,000 in assessed value, due to subsequent changes in interest rates after the bond was approved by voters).
Wallin clarified that the $7 million was not chosen solely to keep the tax rate increase below the $1 threshold — the group also felt confident that $7 million would be sufficient for a pool replacement, or close enough that the district could find a way to close the gap later.
"(The $1 threshold) was something we thought about in terms of picking a number," he said, "but had we known it was going to be (more than) a dollar anyway, I think we would still have come up with some number in that range of $7 million-$10 million."
The next step, according to Barman and others on the board, is for the City and the LOSD to sit down and thoroughly discuss whether to move forward with a joint project. If the City declines to proceed, Barman said, then the board will begin examining options for using the $7 million. But that's a scenario that all of the board members say they want to avoid.
"Over 80 percent of the time, that pool is used by the community — it just happens to be housed at our high school and managed by us," Barman said. "So what we as the board are asking the City to do is to jointly come together and try to figure out what's the best way to measure twice and build once and get it done properly."
At the December council meeting, most of the councilors appeared open to exploring the idea of a partnership, and they informally directed City staff to join the school district in a feasibility study. City Manager Scott Lazenby also suggested that the council could poll voters on the issue as part of an upcoming community attitude survey.
Councilor Skip O'Neill raised the possibility of asking the West Linn City Council if it would be interested in joining the project, noting that two of the potential locations in the Counsilman-Hunsaker study — the Municipal Golf Course and an undeveloped piece of land on Stafford Road — are both located near the border between the two cities.
As a first step, Mayor Kent Studebaker sent a letter to West Linn councilors in December, outlining the concept in broad terms and asking if they would be interested in discussing the possibility of joining the project.
West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod told The Review this week that his council had received Studebaker's letter, but he said officials there want to learn more about the proposal before discussing it. The group intends to ask the Lake Oswego council to share more details about the idea at a future meeting, he said, and Studebaker told The Review that could happen as soon as this month.
The issue came up again during the Lake Oswego council's goal-setting retreat last weekend. During an informal series of anonymous polls at the Saturday retreat, Lazenby asked the mayor and councilors whether they supported funding a replacement pool; three of them were strongly in favor, two were strongly opposed and two were neutral.
Later in the meeting, Gudman advocated holding off on further discussion until the council hears back from West Linn, but LaMotte replied that Lake Oswego should take more initiative in the exploratory phase. And Councilor Joe Buck noted that the City received strong feedback in favor of a pool from online comments before the retreat, although Studebaker cautioned that the responses were from a relatively small group of residents.
The council then voted 6-1 to add further exploration of the pool partnership as a goal for 2018, with only Studebaker voting no.
IN THE BOND
Lake Oswego voters overwhelming approved a $187 million school bond measure in May 2017. Here's how the district said the funds would be allocated:
— $82.3 million to replace Lakeridge Junior High School;
— $61.4 million for deferred maintenance and seismic upgrades at all schools;
— $16.2 million for improvements to security, safety and technology;
— $7 million to replace the district's swimming pool;
— $5.3 million for the creation of science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) centers;
— $5.9 million for the addition of maker spaces/multipurpose rooms at elementary schools; and
— $9 million for other costs, such as relocating students during construction.