Newspaper article

Few Pools, Little Swim Teaching: In Minneapolis, an Issue of Equity and Safety

Newspaper article

Few Pools, Little Swim Teaching: In Minneapolis, an Issue of Equity and Safety

Article excerpt

Minneapolis may be the City of Lakes, but it has a swimming crisis of alarming proportions. It has no public indoor swimming pool where urban youth can learn to swim, and no clear-cut institutional champion of swimming as either a safety issue or a sport.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has the highest drowning rate in the country for African-American youth and the third highest for Native Americans. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for African-Americans between ages 5 to 14. They are three times as likely to drown as their white peers.

And that's not the only aquatic inequity. Over the years, most of the aging, expensive-to-maintain pools Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has closed have been in schools in low-income neighborhoods. The two remaining lap pools where swim teams can practice and meet are located in the far southwest and northeast corners of the city.

If students at the more impoverished schools want to swim competitively, they face bus rides of up to two hours a day and lanes crowded with as many as a dozen swimmers at a time.

Funds for a pool overhaul

There's virtual consensus that the best way to address both problems is to renovate a mothballed indoor pool at the Phillips Community Center on the city's south side. So much so that two years ago the Legislature passed $1.75 million in bonds to pay for the overhaul, and Hennepin County agreed to put up an additional $350,000.

Would that it were that simple. Unlike, say, an afterschool arts program, pools come with high operating costs. You need capital to build them, and you need a stable source of revenue to justify those construction costs.

"This is a social-justice issue," said Hannah Lieder, founder of Minneapolis Swims, the nonprofit leading the effort to renovate the pool. "The last four kids to drown in Minneapolis have all been African-American."

None of the organizations involved in the discussion disagrees. It's just that if that revenue stream turns out not to be so stable, well, someone's going to be left holding the bag.

"No one wants to take institutional ownership of it," said Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis DFLer. "I've been very frustrated with the process because I feel there is a little bait and switch." It's particularly frustrating, he said, going into another legislative bonding cycle with funding for a project that was depicted as "shovel ready" still untouched.

In November, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board delivered a formal proposal [PDF] to MPS that outlined three options for renovating the facility. The district has yet to reply. Administrators said they are engaged in internal discussions about the proposal, which must be part of a larger discussion about athletics, extracurricular activities and equity.

"As a district, we believe that there should be equitable access to all kinds of programming throughout the school district," said MPS Director of Communications Stan Alleyne. "This is more than swimming. We have to look at this in a broader way."

Bonds, funding could be lost

Advocates for the project are anxious, however. If there is no agreement outlining the construction and operation of the proposed Phillips Aquatic Center by June, the bonds and grant money are off the table.

About a dozen swim team families showed up at the most recent Minneapolis School Board meeting to plead their case. Board members Kim Ellison and Carla Bates asked for the formation of an ad hoc committee to tackle the question.

By way of reply, district leaders asked which of the current priorities should be set aside to make time. Staff should have a recommendation for the board in coming weeks, Alleyne said Thursday.

Four years ago Minneapolis Swims, then a year-old nonprofit, persuaded the Minneapolis Park Board not to fill the dilapidated pool in the Phillips Community Center with concrete.

The Park Board had never operated an indoor pool, and had no interest in doing so. …

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