Paso Robles school board halts aquatic center project amid budget woes

Amid budget woes, the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District is putting on hold an aquatic center project pushed by the district’s recently departed superintendent that is now costing significantly more than previous projections. [Tribune]

Last month, Superintendent Chris Williams left the district abruptly less than four months after receiving a new contract with a base salary of about $215,000. Williams’s departure came around the same time school officials revealed the district was faced with a $2.1 million shortfall for the 2019-2020 fiscal year and an additional $800,000 shortfall in 2020-2021. 

The district’s reserves also depleted over Williams’s tenure from about 10 percent of the general fund to 1.73 percent, which is below a state-mandated minimum reserve level. Nonetheless, Williams received $113,409 in severance pay.

Partially funded by a $95 million bond measure approved by voters in 2016, the aquatic center project was initially estimated to cost $10.57 million. In Feb. 2018, Williams said the project would cost $8.2 million. 

On Tuesday, the district presented bids submitted by two contractors. The bids came in between $11 million and $12.7 million, prompting school board members to decide to table the project.

Back when Williams said the project would cost $8.2 million, the district planned to fund the aquatic center using $5.7 million of bond money while obtaining the remaining $2.5 million from fundraising. The district expected to raise $750,000 before a planned groundbreaking on the aquatic center last April, for which Williams and other officials posed with shovels for Paso Robles Press photos. By November, though, the district had only raised $211,000, according to an informational flier.

Even though the now-stalled project is behind schedule and over budget, the district has already purchased parts for a 50-meter pool and a 25-meter pool, which sit in storage containers near Paso Robles High School. The district also spent $362,828 on site cleanup.

Officials are now weighing options, which include selling pool parts that have already been purchased or holding on to them until the school district is ready to move forward with the project. If the district were to sell the pool parts, it would likely do so at a 20 to 25 percent loss.

Project plans initially called for two pools, bleachers a locker room, restrooms, solar water heating and a concession stand. The site of the planned aquatic center is the Paso Robles High campus. 

Proponents of the project say the city pool, which Paso Robles schools currently use, is inadequate for aquatics, particularly water polo. Water polo requires deep water, rather than a pool with a shallow end. Supporters of the planned aquatic center are angry over the project being stalled.

The school board instructed district staff on Tuesday to bring the project back for consideration after the hiring of a new superintendent.