At Holcomb USD 363 district site council meeting Monday evening, about 40 Finney County parents, teachers and community members gathered to listen and respond to the district’s early plans to potentially construct an indoor swimming pool on school property.
“This is a community conversation,” USD 363 superintendent Scott Myers told attendees. “There is no set plan. None. There is not a plan to ... do this or not do this. It’s a concept discussion at this point.”
After short updates on the goings-on at each school, Myers opened the discussion on the indoor aquatic center with information. He said since becoming superintendent last fall, he has repeatedly been asked about reopening Holcomb Elementary’s long defunct indoor swimming pool, drained about 10 years ago because of financial constraints at the time.
Over the past several months, Myers has spoken to the USD 363 school board; Garden City USD 457 superintendent Steve Karlin; the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau; Garden City assistant city manager Jennifer Cunningham, who is heading plans to replace the Big Pool; swim coaches; and local bankers to get a better sense of the project, he said.
Ideally, Myers said, the facility would be a community pool, used not only by area swim teams, but also Holcomb elementary school students for school day swimming lessons, Holcomb and Garden City’s recreation commissions and patrons of water aerobics or therapy courses.
Several years ago, Holcomb voters rejected a bond issue that included construction of an indoor swimming facility. According to local architects, updating those plans to a 25-yard eight-lane swimming pool would cost about $6 million to construct, plus ongoing operations and maintenance costs, Myers said. The plans are preliminary, he said, and only for reference.
If the district wanted to head the project, they had four key funding options: a slow fundraising process that could take upwards of 10 years; bringing on partners or sponsors, such as Finney County, USD 457 or Garden City Community College; moving forward with a lease purchase agreement at about $50,000 to $70,000 a month, which exceeds the district’s annual capital outlay budget; or once again try to fund the project through a bond.
At a $6 million price tag, a 15-year bond would cost the district about $514,000 a year and raise the mill levy about 4.77 mills, Myers said. For owners of $100,000 home, that would amount to about a $54.84 property tax increase a year. Myers said, in his opinion, any funding plan should come at least in part from a bond.
“I truly, truly believe this cannot be the superintendent's or the school board’s initiative. It has to come from the community ... This is not just for the rec department. This is not just for the swim teams. This is for the community,” Myers said, addressing the room.
Community members spoke up throughout the evening, some asking that the district direct funds to education rather than to something that seemed to more directly impact student athletes.
Others leaned into suggestions of funding the project in collaboration with USD 457 and GCCC or passing it along to Finney County. And partnerships may be possible — on Tuesday, Cunningham said she would be willing to continue conversations with USD 363 about the project, though she was not sure the extent to which the city or city commission would be involved. Regardless, she said, the indoor facility and facility replacing the Big Pool were totally independent projects.
Still more were worried that forfeiting control of the project would mean the facility would ultimately be built in Garden City rather than in Holcomb, where elementary students could easily use it, or that Garden City students’ use of the space would be prioritized over Holcomb students.
In response to a guest’s question, Myers, assistant Holcomb High School swim coach Stan Kennedy and Garden City High School swim coach Brian Watkins said the district’s pool, now used as storage space, is likely beyond repair after years of disuse.
Watkins said maintenance of a new pool would likely include repainting every six to eight years, chemical treatment and periodic heating and air conditioning updates. Myers said he was not sure yet on how the district would handle the logistics of operations, though he noted the pool, if constructed, would undoubtedly affect the district’s insurance rates.
To several community members, the largest concern was not the project itself but the bump to property taxes it would cause. The bond’s property tax increase may be feasible for a family with a single lot home, but to farmers or ranchers with acres upon acres of land, the jump would take a serious hit. At an already financially unstable time for any agriculture-based businesses, that kind of strain wasn’t doable for many farming families, residents said.
A retired man agreed, adding that a tax hike would also be difficult for residents on a fixed income.
One woman suggested working with the LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition to secure a rural health care grant to cover a portion of construction costs, Myers adding that he intended to meet with the Western Kansas Community Foundation about additional aid.
And, amid the concerns about payment and logistics, several people agreed the facility would be beneficial to the region.
Myers said he will revisit the discussion regarding the aquatic center with the USD 363 school board in the coming weeks, continue to meet with relevant parties around town and hold additional community forums to gather more community input. Ultimately, the district’s decision to move forward rests with them, he said.