A principal of the company that used the Panther Valley High School swimming pool for therapeutic and other aquatic ventures, now $37,000 in arrears on its contract with the school district, wants to regroup and continue to operate as a nonprofit.
The school board needs to weigh the value of keeping the pool open to the public with whether the group can pay the debt it already owes the district, and rally the funds to maintain the pool.
When it meets at 7 p.m. next Thursday, the board expects to decide whether to reopen the pool, which closed in late December, and accept the group's proposal, or close the pool, perhaps filling it in and using the area for classroom space.
A decision must be made within two weeks, because that's how long the supply of chemicals needed to keep the pool clean is expected to last.
The school board decided to close the pool in June 2011 to light of a $1.3 million cutback in state funding. In October 2011, the board signed a yearlong, $69,500 contract with Water Wellness to operate aquatic activities. The program began in January 2012.
But by Nov. 2012, Water Wellness had begun to have trouble making the contracted payments to the school district to cover heating, chemicals and other upkeep. On Dec. 26, the pool was closed.
Maria Zupko, a principal of Water Wellness, spoke to the board's Budget and Finance Committee Thursday about her proposal to restructure.
Superintendent Rosemary Porembo said the Water Wellness contract is "null and void" due to the lack of payments.
Under the restructuring plan, Zupko's group would become a nonprofit community entity instead of a for-profit business. Zupko and Susan Whitehead said the group, which has yet to be named, has been working with Lehigh Carbon Community College's school of business to develop a business model and to learn how to structure and operate the nonprofit.
Further, Whitehead said, state Rep. Doyle Heffley said he'd help with obtaining grants.
Zupko and Whitehead asked the committee to recommend to the school board that they be given a "good faith" chance to prove themselves. They said the group is composed of about 50 paying members.
Whitehead asked the committee to recommend to the board that both the group and school board work together to keep the pool open.
The committee appeared skeptical about Zupko's new proposal. Several members asked Zupko why she didn't approach them sooner, as soon as she began having trouble meeting the contract's financial requirements.
Zupko said that in November, she had been working with a swimming pool management company called Neptune, which was exploring whether it could operate the indoor Panther Valley pool in conjunction with neighboring Lansford's outdoor public swimming pool. The prospect looked promising, but by mid-December, had fallen through.
"What is the effort to pay the outstanding balance?" asked committee member Richard Zabroski.
Zupko said she and others are working on how to resolve that.
Committee members were concerned that changing from Water Wellness to a nonprofit may allow the organizers to walk away from the debt. Board president and committee member Jeff Markovich suggested the women obtain a bond that would cover 100 percent of the contract cost, plus an additional 50 percent.
As it was, although bonding was a component of the contract with Water Wellness, no bond was ever obtained.
One woman with the group explained that the person who was working with Zupko as Water Wellness, and who was supposed to handle the business end of the company, abandoned the business.
Committee Chairwoman Irene Genther appeared to favor giving the group some time to reorganize.
"It's difficult to make a success out of a business in one year," she said.
Genther suggested giving the group four to six months to prove they can move the project forward.
Markovich told the women that the pool could be drained, filled and used for classroom space to house students who are now using trailers as classrooms.
The school district "is in the education business," not the pool business, he said.
"Right now, taxpayers are on the hook for $37,000," he said. "You're asking us to take a giant, enormous leap of faith."
In an emailed statement after the committee meeting, Zupko said that "aquatic and swim programs are so beneficial for children, teens, adults, and seniors. There is practically an aquatic activity that would interest and benefit every age group, fitness level, and ability. This is why various members of the community are working together and engaging in discussions with the Panther Valley school district to move forward and offer programs from the pool once again. It's encouraging to see so many working together for a solution."
The 3,375-square-foot pool, built in 1972, was closed a decade later due to a faulty valve. It was reopened in 2000, and students made the most of it.
Panther Valley was a Schuylkill League and District 11 swimming power for most of the past decade before the program was ended last year. The Panthers won the District 11 team championship in 2008 and captured the Schuylkill League championship in 2009.The program's most famous graduate is Allysa Vavra. She was a five-time Pennsylvania state champion and a 17-time District 11 champion who went on to an outstanding career at Indiana University and was a member of the USA team for several international events, including the 2011 Pan American Games.