City and School District are on Different Pages as Aquatic & Fitness Center Negotiations Commence

By Lynn Binnie
Whitewater Banner volunteer staff

The Whitewater Aquatic and Fitness Center (WAFC) has been operating for the past two years without the benefit of the necessary agreement between the City of Whitewater and the Whitewater Unified School District. The entities have recently begun the negotiation process towards executing a new agreement, but it is evident that there is quite a gulf between their starting points.

The Whitewater Aquatic Center opened in 2001 after years of planning, fundraising and tireless work by a group called SWIM (Setting Whitewater in Motion). The Whitewater Unified School District (WUSD) provided the land, the City of Whitewater provided $2,000,000 through a bond issuance, and the public contributed $3.5 million. The facility was operated by a board made up of community, school and city representatives. The city and WUSD accepted various responsibilities in an agreement with a 15 year term.

Mercy Healthcare operated the facility from 2003-2008, making a significant contribution by constructing and equipping the fitness center.

When Mercy’s agreement expired, the board resumed direct responsibility for operating the WAFC. The 15 year agreement expired in 2016, and under a new five year agreement between the city and WUSD, the City of Whitewater Parks & Recreation Board assumed responsibility for the operations. According to the city, WAFC operated at a deficit of over $400,000 from 2016-21 that was paid by the city. According to the agreement the school district was responsible for half of the deficit but has not paid its share.

The five year agreement expired in 2021. According to the city, “A new agreement was drafted, and the School Board passed a draft. The Common Council passed that draft with some minor changes. The School Board never passed a revised agreement that included the changes requested by the Council.” WAFC has operated without an agreement since 2021. Meanwhile the pandemic has presented very significant revenue and operational challenges.

In December, 2022 the Common Council began discussion regarding negotiations with WUSD for a new agreement. City staff told the council that they believe that the unsigned 2021 agreement “does not sufficiently address the annual operating costs of the facility, the School District’s $200,000 delinquent payment owed to the City or the capital costs that will be incurred in the next approximately five years necessary to keep the facility operating. The estimated costs of the renovations are HVAC $1.3 million, Pool Floor $250,000, Roof (possible) $463,000, Play Features (unknown) and Boilers $100,000.”

In January, 2023 the School Board discussed negotiation of the agreement. The board expressed positions that include (1) repairs and maintenance are the city’s responsibility and need to be made in order to move forward with negotiations/creation of a new agreement, (2) the prior deficit is not the responsibility of the district, and (3) “in order to make the necessary updates and changes to keep the Aquatic Center current and the type of facility that Whitewater wants/deserves, it is our position that we should bring this question to the public via a referendum.”

The School Board and Common Council both appointed members to serve on an ad hoc WAFC subcommittee with the purpose of negotiating a new agreement. The first meeting of that committee was held on March 2, 2023. Per the agenda, the purpose of that meeting was to receive reports about the membership, marketing, and financial status of WAFC, to hear public comments, and to establish a meeting timeline for the subcommittee. There were a number of comments from members of the public, nearly all of which spoke to the importance of WAFC to the community and supported finding a way forward. Comments that have been heard afterwards from participants include disappointment that members of the subcommittee had said almost nothing about their opinions; however, this was the first meeting of the body, and per the agenda it was not planned for committee discussion to begin yet. Instead, it was evidently envisioned that the subcommittee members of each body might initially meet separately. Future monthly meeting dates for the full subcommittee were established, with the suggestion that it would be important to finalize a new agreement by June for budgetary purposes.

The first meeting of the Common Council subcommittee was held in closed session on March 17, 2023. The School District has not yet announced if/when its subcommittee members will be meeting separately.

The entire 100 page agenda document for the March 2, 2023 full subcommittee meeting may be viewed here.

The previous Banner article regarding the negotiations dated March 1, 2023 may be viewed here.

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