By Gennady Sheyner
David Levinson has been swimming at Rinconada Park in Palo Alto, CA for 40 years, and he credits the pool for keeping him “healthy and fit.”
Levinson, 66, also credits the coaching he has received in the U.S. Master’s Swimming program for improving his stroke technique and conditioning and for ultimately propelling him to national swimming titles.
But like dozens of other swimmers at the popular Palo Alto pool, Levinson has grown concerned in recent weeks over the city’s proposal to significantly expand the number of lessons being offered at the pool and to outsource these lessons to a private company, Team Sheeper. The new arrangement would increase the number of swimming lessons for youth six-fold, from 5,500 to 32,000, partly through better use of the pool during low-demand hours and partly by requiring more sharing of lanes.
Community Services Department staff lauded the proposal as a sensible solution for a program that has seen surging demand and significant staffing challenges. In each of the last two summers, staffing shortages prompted the city to sign emergency short-term contracts with Team Sheeper, which also manages the swimming programs at Burgess Pool in Menlo Park, just to meet the city’s commitments. Jazmin LeBlanc, senior manager of strategy and operations in the Community Services Department, told the Parks and Recreation Commission last month that employee shortages at Rinconada have “gotten to emergency levels in some cases.”
In addition, she said, demand for swimming services continues to grow. Fifty percent of the youth swim lessons that the department offers are full or have waitlists. And in a survey, 70 percent of those who participated indicated that they would enroll in swim lessons if they were offered in the spring or fall.
Staff acknowledges that under the new model both pools at Rinconada would be used more. Team Sheeper’s philosophy, LeBlanc wrote in a report, is “one of maximizing usage (while keeping a delicate balance to avoid crowding the pool).”
“As an example,” the report stated, “during midday weekday hours, when demand for lap lanes may be low, Team Sheeper may use some lanes for lap swim and offer some lanes for lessons or aqua-aerobics.”
The one-year $128,000 contract, which the City Council is scheduled to consider in January, is creating ripples of discontent among Rinconada’s existing swimmers, however — particularly those who frequent the pool during the busy morning hours.
Under the existing schedule, lap swimmers have exclusive use of all 14 lanes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings while those in the Master’s program have a similar arrangement on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.
Levinson was one of dozens of swimmers who attended the Nov. 16 meeting of the parks commission to voice concern about the proposed change.
“You might imagine that it came as a great shock to me when I found out that, seemingly out of the blue and without consulting any of us swimmers, the city is proposing to degrade both the Rinconada Masters program and the lap-swimming program by going from the present system, which nearly every swimmer in both groups is happy with, to a poorly thought-out hybrid system that we don’t need or want,” Levinson said.
Anne Harrington, a lap swimmer at Rinconada, raised another concern about the contract, which will allow Team Sheeper to collect registration fees from users. Rinconada pool is a community asset, she said, and a setup in which another organization gets 90 percent of the profits while the city still bears operational and maintenance costs doesn’t seem like a good deal.
“To turn it over to an outside organization, essentially giving up control while bearing costs, would truly be a privatization of a public asset,” Harrington said.
Before presenting its latest proposal, Community Services Department staff had considered several alternatives, including maintaining status quo, expanding Rinconada operations using only in-house staff, and signing a contract with Team Sheeper to oversee all of the Aquatics Program, rather than just the swim-coaching components.
Enhancing the program with city staff would be “significantly more expensive” than outsourcing because it would require “an increase in number of full-time benefited City employees in order to ensure sufficient staffing and oversight of an expanded program,” LeBlanc’s report stated.
Nor is the city rushing to hand over the control of the entire pool to Team Sheeper. Rob de Geus, director of Community Services, said that while there’s still a possibility the city will explore the single-operator model in the future, it’s “not there yet.”
“We need to do a little more due diligence and public outreach to see if in fact going down that path is in the best interest of residents,” de Geus said.
Staff is, however, comfortable in allowing Team Sheeper to take charge of the swimming lessons starting in 2017, a change that will raise the number of weeks in which swim lessons are being offered from nine to 30 (including 10 before the summer and 10 weeks after the summer).
Tim Sheeper, company founder and CEO, didn’t dispute that lanes will be heavily used during the busy summer season. Starting in the fall, though, the number of “lane hours” that will be available to lap swimmers would increase by about 30 percent, from the existing level of 553 per week to 734.
In responding to swimmers’ concerns, de Geus stressed at the Parks and Recreation meeting that the department is “not looking to change the existing programs in a negative way,” as many of the emails from the public suggest.
“We want to manage and operate the pool in a responsible way to be good stewards of this great asset and see if we can have more Palo Alto residents take advantage of it,” de Geus said.
He also noted that the smaller Rinconada pool sits largely dormant for much of the year, outside the summer months (the Sheeper program calls for using this pool for many of its lessons). And the Master’s program, he noted, has only about 56 users and has plenty of room to grow.
“I get the sensitivity,” de Geus said. “Overcrowding it doesn’t work. We’re not suggesting that. But we do think that some sensible and fair sharing at certain times, when there’s low demand, is possible.”
The Parks and Recreation Commission did not make any formal recommendations on the new contract, though most members agreed that a partnership with Team Sheeper makes sense, given the positive feedback that its programs have received from users over the past two summers. But some commissioners urged staff not to be too ambitious with expanding the program in the first year.
Commissioner Jennifer Hetterly pointed to the community’s concerns and suggested that the dramatic increase in lessons could degrade the quality of swimmers’ experiences.
“Maybe six times as many lessons (as today) is too ambitious for a tryout in a new season,” Hetterly said. “I’d like to see something less ambitious so that we can learn something from it before we risk turning people away from the pool.”