Santa Barbara’s Ortega Park has been the center of a tug-of-war between community activists and city leadership over what will be included in the park’s proposed Master Plan, but Eastside residents are worried about the availability of resources now, particularly the ability for youth to use and learn to swim in the park’s public pool.
After two summers of scaled-back aquatics activities, the city announced plans to offer swim lessons at both Los Baños and Ortega Park’s pool, the only two public pools in the city, for newly increased rates ranging from $85 to $93.50.
Upon seeing the prices — which cover 30-minute lessons, five days a week for two weeks — several locals began questioning how they were set, given that the two pools have noticeably different amenities and are located in neighborhoods with different communities. One email chain, sent to several news publications and city councilmembers, reads: “30 minutes for $85 to $95 dollars on the Eastside? Absolutely ridiculous.”
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According to Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation Aquatics Supervisor Tony Sholl, the city’s swim lesson rates are “below market rate” and priced to cover staffing and “a small percentage of the pool operating costs.”
“The City of Santa Barbara is committed to being an affordable option for recreation,” Sholl said, explaining that rates are increased across the board by about $3 to $5 annually.
When compared to the rates for other programs, the city’s fee per lesson is competitive. The YMCA charges between $100 and $120 for 10 lessons, while Ventura charges $40 for five lessons and Carpinteria charges $100 for 10 lessons. Private programs like Wendy Fereday Swim School charge $48 per lesson, with a 35-lesson minimum, and Sunshine Swim School charges $210 for six group lessons.
According to Sholl, the city of Santa Barbara does have funds available for scholarships, mostly due to community donations, and offers free swim lessons in July at Los Baños, paid for by donations from The Friends of Los Baños. These free lessons are not an option at Ortega Park.
One of the loudest voices in the city, pushing not only for increased access to pools but also for a larger competitive pool at the park, is former Cleveland School teacher Victoria Valente. She recently penned an open letter to the city council, advocating for a fully programmable competitive pool at the park. Part of her passion for aquatics is the fact that many local kids, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, are not exposed to water safety because of a lack of accessibility.
Although the city does offer scholarships, they often are inaccessible and hard to navigate, unlike the YMCA scholarships, which Valente says are much easier for families to obtain. “[Scholarships] should be user friendly, without being another barrier.”
On June 8, the city held a public meeting to review the latest pool design, which drew criticism for its proposed size and location near the Welcome House, and on June 22, the Parks and Recreation Commission canceled a meeting where it was scheduled to discuss the park plans. No new meeting has been scheduled.