John Marshall pool

Century and John Marshall high school parents watch the diving portion of a swim meet at John Marshall High School. As with most meets, the bleachers are full and the standing crowd spills out the door. (Ken Klotzbach/kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

During a match two years ago, a Century High School swimmer took position on the starting block only to have the block mount collapse underneath him.

Century High School swim coach Dale Magnuson doesn’t recall who the swimmer was, but he does remember the incident happened at the John Marshall High School competition pool in a match against Duluth East.

The swimmer wasn’t hurt, but the Century Swim Team did lose a lane to use to compete in the match.

Built in 1953, the John Marshall pool is Rochester Public Schools’ only pool that meets state standards for competition swimming and diving.

The Mayo High School pool diving well is not deep enough for diving competition. That leaves three Rochester High Schools — six swim teams — with one competition pool.

On Nov. 5, the school district will ask voters to approve a $9.5 million bond referendum that would allow the district to build a pool at Century High School, build a deeper diving well at Mayo High School and close the three middle school pools.

The bond question on the pool is contingent on the passage of a $171.4 million ask that would fund building a new middle school and new elementary school and rebuilding two other elementary schools to 720-student capacity schools.

Advocates for the pool plan worry that making it a separate ballot question hurts its odds for success.

“I was hopeful that it would have been included as one question,” said Bill Shaughnessy, president of Rochester Swimming Inc., a nonprofit formed by Rochester Parks and Recreation Department.

“I think that’s a big mistake,” he said, adding that stand-alone questions about pools rarely pass on first attempts.

“Until there is an understanding in the community that we have a limited capacity to teach water safety and field competitive teams, this will be a tough ask,” he said.

Rochester Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz said the questions were separated after a community survey found that support for the referendum -- especially from people without children -- falls considerably after $172 million.

However, he added that the pools are an essential part of the district’s curriculum.

“It really plays into the idea of developing the whole child,” he said.

Swim team competition teaches group cooperation and competition, he said.

Linda Freeman, co-chairwoman of the Strong Schools for Rochester group that is advocating for public support of the Nov. 5 referendum, said both asks are essential.

“There’s no wish list here,” she said. “They’re all needs.”

Freeman is also the Century Boys Swimming coach and knows firsthand the difficulties of coordinating practices and competition with limited facilities.

“The teams have been very flexible,” she said.

Conference meets are occasionally held at the Rochester Recreation Center. However, the center charges for use. Most days the pool is booked with events from 3 to 9 p.m. -- times high school athletes could practice, Shaughnessy said.

“There’s no available space at the Rec Center except during the school day,” he said.

Shaughnessy said that other districts in the area have competition pools: Mankato has 6-lane competition pools at both the city high schools and Austin, Northfield, Albert Lea and New Prague each have 8-lane competition pools.

“The Rochester School pools are abysmal,” he said. “They are arguably the worst school pools in Southeast Minnesota and in the conference.”

Freeman adds that the question does more than just address swim competition needs. Closing the three middle school pools would provide space for the schools, which are at 99 percent capacity.

“Each one of them can be repurposed as needs be,” Freeman said.

The pool area at Willow Creek would likely become a gymnastics gym, Muñoz said.

Specific use of the other pool spaces hasn’t been determined yet.

Closing the three pools and adding one will also save in operational costs, Freeman said.

The district has budgeted more than $132,000 in maintenance and repairs on operating five pools.

“It’s an opportunity to lessen a big-time burden,” Freeman said.

If built and renovated, the high school pools could offer revenue opportunities for the school district by holding events.

Swimming and water safety will continue to be part of the middle school curriculum, Muñoz said. Students will be bused to one of the high schools.

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