One of the most contentious and confusing local debates of the spring — whether or not to renovate and reopen the Columbia High School swimming pool — appears to be moot, according the the President of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.
During an exchange late in the May 16 Board of Education meeting, BOE President Thair Joshua indicated that a plan to have architects present to the full BOE and the public on July 18 was about explaining the decision-making process around how the former pool space would be repurposed, not about deciding whether or not to restore the pool.
But information on the decision-making process around repurposing that space as a student “commons” rather than as classroom space — as well as updated information on what it would cost to restore the pool — will not be available to the public or the full Board of Education until July.
The CHS pool has been shuttered since 2016 after engineers warned of impending “catastrophic” failure. District officials initially indicated that the space would be converted into classrooms; recently, plans were shared for converting the space to a student “commons” and collaboration space. This spring, a coalition of parents organizing under the banner Save Our Kids Pool have advocated for restoring the pool as an issue of swim equity and public safety.
On May 16, Joshua told Board members that he asked South Orange-Maplewood District Business Administrator Eric Burnside “to get the architects to present to the full board,” at a public meeting on July 18, and that a tour of the space would be afforded to BOE members before the presentation.
Said Joshua, “Just to clarify what the presentation is: the presentation is on the proposed use of the space. It’s not about an either/or proposition. What we asked for was, we asked for that to be added, but the presentation is not 30 slides on the pool and 30 slides on the commons. The presentation is about the design of the commons and the question that really came up was: how did the plan go from the originally proposed classroom space to the newly proposed commons space. And then on top of that is, just so you know … because there is interest in the community and from maybe even some of us on the Board: here is what, to make it a functional pool space, this is the cost that would be associated with it.”
Joshua said that the timing of the presentation would not hold up the bidding of Long Range Facilities Plan projects for the high school. The high school will be among the last of the district’s schools to embark on its portion of the districtwide $160M-plus LRFP that will seal buildings, bring new HVAC and include additions to accommodate historically rising enrollment trends and modern classroom needs.
“The earliest we would bid would be August,” said Joshua.
Requests for Information
BOE member Courtney Winkfield said she had questions about the use of the space as well as the financials. “Is it the same cost to renovate the pool as to repurpose it?”
Burnside did not answer her question but said that the architects “are gonna have the numbers … the comparison of what it is to restore vs. not restore it.”
Burnside also indicated that those numbers were changing from the April presentation.
BOE member Kaitlin Wittleder asked about the changes to the numbers: “There were changes to the $3.5 M for the student commons vs. $8M for restoring a recreational pool?”
Burnside answered, “I’m not sure what the updates were. He just said he had updates to the presentation.”
Wittleder asked, “Are we spending a lot of time spinning our wheels when we could focus on just meeting to discuss the commons space and get really excited about it and make sure it’s exactly what the students need and the district wants and getting ready for breaking ground in the fall. … At this point, what are we waiting for?”
Joshua reiterated: “So again, I just want to make sure, as Dr. Taylor would say, that we all leave here with the same information… that the presentation that we will have on July  will be from the architects presenting to us on the commons and some of the decision-making that was made to change it from an original classroom space — for those of us who went through the LRFP presentations in 2017 and 2018 and even 2019 — to the current proposal of a student commons space. ”
BOE member Elissa Malespina then asked, “I want to make this very clear. So we are not looking at changing it back to a pool? This presentation is about what the Commons area is going to look like and not about switching it back to a pool.”
Joshua responded, “I mean I can’t be any clearer than what I just said. So thank you.”
Village Green followed up with Joshua and he confirmed that reopening the pool was not under consideration by the Board of Education. “Yes. That’s accurate,” Joshua responded.
Village Green asked about previous comments in April where Joshua stated, in part, “It wasn’t mentioned tonight but other construction projects at CHS would not be delayed if the board were to move forward with a pool renovation.”
Joshua responded, “My comment in April was specifically about the plan for the commons location in the pool space which is a separate project from the larger CHS renovations and addition plans. More generally, it was a reference to the changing nature of projects and the need for the district to be nimble. For instance, the South Mountain project had to be separated into two different ones and re-bid last fall due to higher costs. On the positive side, the district is ahead of schedule on Jefferson and the first part of the Clinton renovation and addition.”
Earlier in the May 16 BOE meeting, during public comments, community members shared that an Open Public Records Act request for the April architects’ presentation to the Finance Facilities & Technology Committee, including financial documents comparing the costs of a pool renovation with costs of repurposing the space as a commons, had been denied. The reason given was that the documents were “deliberative.”
In response to a question from Village Green asking how the documents could be deemed “deliberative” if the board was not taking action on them, Joshua responded, “I cannot offer any comment on the OPRA request. Thanks.”
During public comments, district parent Dr. Khadijah Costley White cited the denial of the OPRA request: “Besides the fact that it’s the community who’s going to pay for the destruction of the CHS Pool, both in terms of money and in terms of the long term consequences of water safety and access to swimming, this refusal to share basic information with the community suggests that our input is not only not valuable and that transparency is not important, but it also suggests that you have something to hide.”
“Why are you proceeding with secrecy around this issue?” added White. “If the estimate shows that the cost specifically of repairing the pool is feasible, you should do it.”
White said that Board members Courtney Winkfield, Erin Siders, Kaitlin Wittleder, Qawi Telesford and Susan Bergin ran on platforms for “addressing disparities and removing barriers for all kids, especially vulnerable kids in our district for participation in sports, clubs and activities. Board president Joshua, you wrote about improving engagement, information flow and transparency in our district.”
“You guys can do something here for thousands of kids here,” said White. “It’s an opportunity. It’s why you ran. Please think and please try to reflect and give transparency in this area.”