Community holds mock swimathon in support of Berkeley pools, ballot measures

Robert Collier/Courtesy

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More than 40 community members attended a “mock swimathon” benefit at Willard Middle School on Saturday to raise awareness for two November ballot measures aiming to renovate and build new pools for the city.

At the event, children from Berkeley schools dressed in aquatic-themed costumes and held races on top of the school’s dirt-filled pool — which the city closed in 2010 and filled with dirt due to lack of funds to support upkeep.

If approved by two-thirds of voters, Measure O will implement a parcel tax generating $604,000 in funds for pool maintenance and operations, and Measure N will create a $19.4 million bond measure for the construction and renovation of the city’s swimming pools.

“You’re sitting here looking at a pool filled with dirt, and that calls out for some parody and protests,” said Robert Collier, co-chair of the Berkeley Pools Campaign. “There’s nothing more ridiculous than a pool at a school much loved by the community … that’s filled with dirt.”

Collier said pools play a crucial role within the Berkeley community by being safe places for young children to learn how to swim and convenient locations for physical therapy for the disabled and senior citizens.

“Everybody should have access to pools — it is part of community life, and it’s good for health,” he said. “This event shows what our campaign is like. It’s a very sincere and earnest group of very dedicated people who care about their pools and community.”

Measure N would specifically provide funding to build a new warm pool at West Campus and to replace or renovate the pools at Willard and Martin Luther King Jr. middle schools. The less costly and contingent Measure O would pay for the maintenance and operation of just the warm pool at the Berkeley Unified School District’s West Campus site and the Willard Middle School pool, if Measure N passes.

Currently, the city only has two operating swimming pools, at King Middle School and West Campus, and neither is heated. The Willard Middle School pool closed in 2010, and Berkeley High School’s warm pool closed in 2011.

Barbara Gilbert, a member of local fiscal accountability organization Berkeley Budget SOS, said that while the pools play an important part in the community, they should not be the city’s top priority. The current financial condition of the city necessitates a better look at what should receive funding at this time, she said.

“The city of Berkeley has $1.2 billion in unfunded needs … so this is huge,” she said. “We don’t have unlimited money. You have to look at it as part of a larger picture.”

Gilbert denies that the city only has two public pools and said there are many other pools in the city, including UC Berkeley’s and the Downtown Berkeley YMCA’s pool.

“With a little cooperation and effort, arrangements could be worked out to meet some of the needs of the pool people at a tiny fraction of the cost of these measures,” Gilbert said.

But Kriss Worthington, a Berkeley City Council member and mayoral candidate, said people traveling out of their way to use these pools is ridiculous. Having the pools closer in Berkeley and connected to local schools is vital for the community in learning how to swim, he said.

“Having the pools at the schools is important, as it’s a way for teachers to regularly bring their classes en masse to come and learn how to swim,” Worthington said. “They’re not going to take their kids a long distance away from the school on a regular basis — that’s just not a realistic, practical alternative.”

However, Gilbert disagrees with this assessment and said that upward of 90 percent of the people who use Berkeley pools get there through public transit or by driving.

“I don’t buy that argument,” she said. “Very few people are within the radius to walk to pools. If those parents want their kids to go to a pool, they can take them to King or the YMCA. Most people do that — that’s just the way it is.”
Angel Jaramillo, a 9-year-old student at John Muir Elementary, hopes the measures do pass, since he believes the pools would be great places to go during the summer.

“I’ve never seen it filled with water and everything … so I kind of feel a little bit sad,” he said. “It is an important issue and for a good cause — I hope that they bring the pool back.”

Contact Andy Nguyen at [email protected].