Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy wants to sell the Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatics Center — before the brand new $26 million dollar 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 earlier this month.
Sitka Senator 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 says the project is important and necessary for instruction at MEHS. It isn’t just a luxury pool.
“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,” she says. “And not the kind of water that you grow up in recreationally swimming.”
She says 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 says, 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,” she says. “My time out there it was critical to get a swimming pool for that exact reason, for safety reasons.”
When Governor Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget was released earlier this month, numerous organizations across the state saw big cuts — public schools, ferries, higher education. But this capital project was especially near and dear to the heart of Sitka senator Bert 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, Stedman 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 says. “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 8 years. They broke ground on the $26 million dollar facility in 2016 and it opened for student use in January of 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 says. “Those funds should enable the pool to operate and substantially close the, or generate revenue to offset its operating costs.”
And in the meantime, Mt. Edgecumbe superintendent 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,” she says. “What that may mean is still really, I think, in the discussion phase.”
At the very least, it’s 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 says 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.”
But fun doesn’t keep the lights on and the water warm at the Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatics Center.