OPRF’s West Pool has been closed, possibly permanently. (FILE 2019)

In recent months, the District 200 school board and administration have parsed through details and discussed the possibilities of funding several major renovation projects over the next decade. But the recent closure of one of the high school’s two swimming pools is now pushing that conversation forward, reinforcing the district’s need to address a hefty list of dire maintenance issues. 

Oak Park and River Forest High School officials closed the west pool almost a month ago after consultants from the Naperville-based McCluskey Engineering assessed the district’s east and west pools. Even before the full report was released, consultants told D200 officials that the west pool, which has faced significant damage from wear and tear over the decades, is unsafe, said district spokeswoman Karin Sullivan. 

“They wanted us to know the seriousness of the problem even before we got the report,” Sullivan said, recalling a phone conversation between school administrators and McCluskey’s consultants. “Our question was: ‘Well, we’re coming to the end of the winter swim season and water polo. Can we keep it open through that?’ And the response we got was: ‘I can’t tell you that would be safe.’ That was when we said we’re closing the pool.” 

Sullivan told Wednesday Journal the district had long anticipated necessary repairs of the east and west swimming pools and had made some minor renovations to them throughout the years. The two pools were built in 1928 – which clocks them in at 94 years old – whereas the lifespan of a pool lasts somewhere between 40 to 50 years, Sullivan said. 

“We’ve been aware that at some point they’re going to fail. This wasn’t a surprise to us. Of course, we’ve hoped all along that we can get this issue resolved before this happens,” she said, “but here we are.” 

The district had initially sought to replace the pools with one 25-yard by 40-yard pool, a project that would fold into the second phase of the Imagine OPRF capital improvement plan. Project 2, which has yet to be finalized by the school board, was set to focus on several renovations to the high school’s physical education classrooms, including the gyms and multipurpose rooms, athletic offices and locker rooms. But because Project 2 is not in place, the district is facing another dilemma, Sullivan said. 

“What to do about the pool is very intertwined with Project 2,” she said. “Building a new pool is part of Project 2. If for some reason Project 2 was not pursued, we’d still have to figure [this] out. What are we going to do about these failing pools?”

“So at this point, we’re trying to determine are we going to proceed with Project 2, and what does that look like? And so we really can’t make any decisions about the pools until we figure out the Project 2 piece.”

In a 14-page document, McCluskey itemized the key issues facing the school’s two pools. While both pools’ basement walls and floors were observed to have suffered from water leakage, corrosion, cracks and efflorescence from the constant presence of moisture, the west pool appeared to be in far worse condition than the east pool. 

Based on the McCluskey report, the west deck of the west pool must be repaired and was marked a “5” on the firm’s 1-5 scale, meaning those repairs are urgent. District officials emailed families and employees late last month, explaining the west pool’s closure due to the west deck issues. The west wall of the pool relies on the west deck for structural support, they said, and warned that a “structural failure of the deck could cause a structural failure of the pool wall as well.”  

McCluskey consultants also noted the west pools’ walls had more active leaks and that its walls and basement floor were “generally wetter” than the east. They pointed out that one of the west pool’s walls had many leaks, some of which were below the pool floor, causing portions of the basement floor to get wet. They also observed dark rust stains around a control joint near the southern end of the west pool. Though the joint had been patched, they saw a “noticeable bulge in the surface of the wall,” they wrote. The patch was delaminated, and when they removed a piece of it, the water leaked, increasing “noticeably,” they wrote. 

“Where water was observed leaking through the wall at or below the construction joint, it indicates that water had penetrated the pool floor and built up in the area below the pool before penetrating the walls,” McCluskey consultants wrote in the report. 

McCluskey also referred to an assessment by Larson Engineering Inc., a Chicago-based firm that previously worked with the district and evaluated the pools. Larson Engineering had reported that the leaks and cracks in the pool walls indicate that the walls’ cannot “support the fluid pressure of the water.” Those walls have been “compromised” by corrosion and degradation and are not structurally sound, and the damages cannot be determined by visual observation alone, Larson consultants said. 

In last month’s districtwide email, high school officials explained how complicated it was to repair the school’s pair of 94-year-old pools. While the pool systems, pool decks, observation areas and locker rooms do not meet current safety codes, the district opened up about another hurdle. 

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), which oversees pool permits, requires any pool equipment to be replaced with the same model, or the entire facility undergoes a new permitting process to be brought up to code. 

“We have equipment that’s 40 years old [that] they just don’t make anymore,” Sullivan told Wednesday Journal in an interview. “We have to remove that equipment, then we have to bring the whole pool up to code.” 

As the district moves forward, they look to discuss the necessary repairs of the west pool at the March 24 school board meeting and present cost estimates.

But at this point, the district laid out one question in its February email that still remains unclear and unanswered: “Should the district try and fix the current, inadequate pools or wait to invest in a new one?”

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