‘Should pools be our priority?’ West Philly pool becomes a battleground between community, city, and school board
“I don’t really care about all this bureaucracy BS, because at the end of the day, our kids are not getting served,” said Kirsten Britt, who has advocated for the re-opening of the Sayre pool.
For most of the 50 years Nancy Winder has lived in Cobbs Creek, the Sayre-Morris pool has been a fixture in the community, a place where everyone from toddlers to seniors swam and socialized, a safe haven even when city streets were plagued by violence.
After years of neglect, the pool at 59th and Spruce, adjacent to Sayre High School but part of a city recreation center owned by the Philadelphia School District, closed in 2017. Since then, Winder and a group of neighbors have crusaded to get it reopened.
With City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and Mayor Jim Kenney in their corner, neighbors thought they finally had their chance Thursday night, when the school board considered a resolution to spend $10 million to renovate the space and reopen the pool.
But the measure was met with a resounding “no,” dying, 7-1.
“We have huge capital needs across the district,” board president Joyce Wilkerson said at the meeting, noting the district has more than $4 billion worth of repairs and upgrades to complete. “While I realize the community has been waiting a long time and this may be a very deserving project, I think it is a mistake for us to consider this without having it considered in the context of our broader capital program.”
That vote has set up a political battle, pitting a city councilmember, the mayor, and a state representative — not to mention advocates like Winder and others — against the board in a fight over who’s responsible for neighborhood assets, and how much leverage politicians and the community should have over an unelected school board.
The Sayre Junior High pool was announced with great fanfare in 1966, hailed as the first of a series of Olympic-size indoor pools at School District sites around the city. The $800,000 project responded to the need for year-round swimming programs, school board president Richardson Dilworth said, and came through with funds from the district and city, which contributed $275,000, according to a Philadelphia Bulletin story. The pool was to be available for district use but also open to the community after school, on weekends, and during the summer.
“The construction of the pool at Sayre marks the beginning of a program which will move as fast as funds permit to meet this community need,” the Bulletin story read.
Fifty-six years later, funds continue to dictate the pool’s fate.
After years of community advocacy, the mayor, Gauthier, and State Rep. Joanna McClinton urged Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. in an October letter to prioritize reopening the pool. Though the district has owned the Sayre rec site since 1945, it failed to adequately maintain the pool building and infrastructure, the letter said. Pleas to fix up the pool “seem to have fallen on deaf ears,” Kenney, Gauthier, and McClinton wrote.
“At a time when young people across the city, including in Cobbs Creek, are being victimized by gun violence at record rates, it is more important than ever for communities to have safe spaces ... ,” the trio wrote. “Without question, this neighborhood asset is deserving of a full capital investment from the school district.”
The bill to renovate the pool and facility that holds it would be $3.5 million, Kenney, Gauthier, and McClinton said in the letter; Gauthier would use part of her capital budget and McClinton secured state funding worth a total of $1 million, meaning the district would be responsible for about $2.5 million. The three also promised to seek more funds from the city’s 2023 operating budget.
Those officials pledged that once the pool was reopened, the city would permanently assume all operating and facilities costs for the site.
Hite responded later that month, reminding the politicians that the majority of its 300 facilities are old and in need of repair and that the district is the only one in Pennsylvania that has no ability to raise its own revenue.
“And the reality is that revenue from the city and state has not kept up with our expenses, too often forcing us to make the difficult choice of investing in students and staff or investing in buildings,” Hite wrote. Still, he said, he would ask the school board to increase the budget over the $775,000 for roof repairs it had already authorized to encompass all necessary repairs and consider reopening the pool.
The superintendent emphasized the school system would retain ownership but coordinate with city agencies to provide access.
With one exception — board member Cecelia Thompson noted the community benefit of the pool and voted to approve the expenditure — board members did not believe it was the right time for the expenditure.
“How many amazing playgrounds could we build with this much money?” asked board member Maria McColgan. “Should pools be our priority?”
The jump in price, from $3.5 million in a 2019 estimate, to $10 million, raised eyebrows as well.
In a statement, board member Mallory Fix Lopez said the $3.5 million included only the pool, and more money would be needed for the roof and the electrical upgrades, among other things, to be functional.
Fix Lopez also said the board wanted to engage the public in a larger conversation about buildings once a new superintendent joins the district later this year.
“This could be an opportunity for all city agencies to sit down together and create a comprehensive plan for public property, including the Sayre pool,” Fix Lopez said.
Winder and others are steamed, but planning next steps.
“We have the state support, we have the mayor’s support — what is the problem?” asked Winder, who spent a lifetime at the pool and rec center, from water aerobics classes to her great-granddaughter’s wedding reception.
Gauthier said she understands the need for a larger vision for capital spending.
But “not only have we been waiting for that for years, there is a ton of really critical facility work that needs to be done right now. While they’re couching this as a responsible move, I think it’s incredibly irresponsible to not deal with the needs of our facilities in communities that are struggling.
“The board seems to have very little awareness and connection to what is going on in these neighborhoods,” Gauthier said. “We’ve had teenagers dying in West and Southwest Philly over the last two years at a relentless pace.”
Kirsten Britt, another West Philadelphia neighbor and member of the Sayre Rec Center Advisory Council, said the community feels as if it were “set up for failure,” with a project whose cost suddenly ballooned.
“I don’t really care about all this bureaucracy BS, because at the end of the day, our kids are not getting served,” said Britt.
The mayor, through a spokesperson, said he was keen to look at the proposed estimates for the pool renovation “and to talk with the school district and the board on next steps to move this project forward,” Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said in a statement. “The community has waited for far too long for the pool to be fixed.”