Berkeley school district takes over troublesome BHS pool

The boys water polo team playing in the BHS pool. Photo: Mark Beyler

The boys’ water polo team playing in the BHS pool. Photo: Mark Beyler

After complaints about the swimming pool at Berkeley High went ignored for years – including reports of hair loss and eye irritation in swimmers – the Berkeley Unified School District last month decided to overhaul its system of monitoring the pool, shifting responsibility from the school administration to the district’s offices.

The change came after numerous parents expressed concern about the pH balance of the pool, the city of Berkeley closed it down twice, and the coach repeatedly pleaded with the school district over four years to fix numerous problems, including reports of unbalanced chemical levels, rust, and algae in the water. Many of the problems went unaddressed.

In November, Berkeleyside filed a public records request with the district. The documentation turned over by BUSD – dozens of emails and memos adding up to hundreds of pages – revealed an extensive history of unaddressed maintenance issues both big and small and lax oversight of the pool. 

For example, it took two years for some burned lights to be replaced and another three years before buzzing on light ballasts were addressed. A dehumidifier remained broken for a long time, meaning that chlorinated water condensed on surfaces surrounding the pool, causing rust and other problems. At one point, maintenance officials turned off the pool’s heating system because its fumes were bothersome, but that meant the pool temperature dropped well below recommended levels. Most significantly, the pool chemical levels occasionally got out of whack, causing problems for swimmers and water polo players.

“To date, when major requests have been submitted… regarding the pool, there has been no follow through from Central Maintenance and no response other than the automated ‘Thanks for your request,'” Bill Gaebler, Berkeley High School’s swimming and water polo coach, wrote in an January 2013 email to Berkeley High Operations Manager Al Wilright. In April, Gaebler reiterated his concern:  “The maintenance requests for pool projects that were submitted last spring went, by and large, unfulfilled,” wrote Gaebler in an email that went to Wilright, Principal Pasquale Scuderi, and other members of the administration. “Some of these requests are now in their third or fourth summer of abeyance.”

“It is frustrating and confusing that I cannot get clear and prompt communication back from my concerns regarding the swimming pool conditions,” Gaebler wrote in another email.

Gaebler did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Both Scuderi and Wilright were also contacted and did not reply. Wilright is away on medical leave.

Pool conditions draw national spotlight

The pool conditions drew national attention in September when the Berkeley Health Department shut it down due to pH, chlorine, and chloramine levels that were ten times higher than the accepted limits. The city also shut down the pool in the fall of 2012 after testing the water and discovering another chemical imbalance.

“It started to melt the hair off our bodies and make everyone cough a lot,” said Nate Pearson, a water polo player whose season was cut short when the pool was closed two years in a row.

Bill Gaebler, BHS swimming and water polo coach, stands next to the freshmen girl's water polo team at a meet. Photo: Marilee Enge

Bill Gaebler, BHS swimming and water polo coach, stands next to the freshmen girl’s water polo team at a meet. Photo: Marilee Enge

The City of Berkeley’s yearly inspection records reveal that the health department has warned Berkeley High about unsafe pool chemical levels six times since it opened ten years ago, although the imbalance was never nearly as severe as it was in 2013.

An inspection report from 2004 calls on the school to “Maintain pH levels between 7.2-8.0. Current level is 7.0. Correct immediately.” The 2006 and 2007 inspections indicated a 7.0 pH level as well, and the 2005 inspection found free chlorine at 0.5ppm, below the accepted lower limit of 1.0ppm.

In September, the pH level at the pool reached 8.5, significantly above the accepted upper limit of 7.8 on the exponential pH scale, according to an email Gaebler sent to the water polo community. The federal government’s Centers for Disease Control says on its website that swimmers will feel irritation to their eyes or skin if pool water isn’t kept as the same pH level of a body, which is between 7.2 and 7.8 on the pH scale.

The City of Berkeley recommends an upper limit of 7.6 if eye irritation has occurred – a more conservative stance than that of the CDC.

The CDC also warns about the effects – and possible long-term health concerns – of exposure to chloramines, or irritants, which can build up when chlorine combines with sweat, saliva or other body waste. “The symptoms of irritant exposure in the air can range from mild symptoms, such as coughing, to severe symptoms, such as wheezing,” the site says. “It is also known that routine breathing of irritants may increase sensitivity to other types of irritants such as fungi and bacteria.”

The chemical imbalance at Berkeley High this year was deemed a result of a malfunctioning CO2 tank, which was replaced in October, shortly after the cause was identified. In some of the previous cases, Wilright and Gaebler addressed the problems by manually feeding chemicals into the pool to alter the levels.

UV filtering system not installed

Gaebler has advocated for the installation of an ultraviolet filtering system, which can address recurring issues, including chloramine build-up, according to his emails. Experts told Gaebler that “the majority of all new pool construction” utilizes UV to control chloramines.  But the systems are expensive, costing as much as $63,000, and BUSD has not installed one.

“I believe the persistent problems are being caused by the CHLORAMINE level, a compound of chlorine plus organic waster products (ammonia, dirt), which, if not actively and specifically addressed, concentrate and accumulate in the pool water rather than being dissipated,” Gaebler wrote on Sept. 23. “There are treatments for this that we have not yet implemented, and in addition, I have advocated for the purchase and installation of a UV filter system that would permanently eliminate the chloramine situation, not to mention cut chlorine usage as much as 50%.”

A swimmer in the pool at Berkeley High. Photo: Susan Helmrich

A swimmer in the pool at Berkeley High. Photo: Susan Helmrich

After Berkeleyside first broke the story of the pool’s closure, it was picked up by the Huffington Post and other outlets in September. The issue was also mentioned on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! nationally syndicated radio show. And, after Berkeleyside and some parents of swimmers filed a Public Records Request, BUSD officials decided to centralize oversight of the pool. As of early December, the central district rather than Berkeley High will take care of maintenance and monitoring, said BUSD Facilities Director Lew Jones, who said the shift was inspired partially by this year’s chemical conditions.

“What happens at the high school is they have a lot of demands on them and they have limited resources,” Jones said. “We have more options now. I might have three people who are able to respond to the full issue as opposed to one person.”

Jones said he has taken measures to ensure that problems will now be identified and attended to immediately. An outside consultant now inspects the pool on a weekly – rather than the traditional yearly – basis.

“We made that decision because I just felt like there was enough public concern about what was going on and that it was worth having not just our own people, but people who are experts in that area to check the pool,” Jones said.

The district is also developing an internal procedure for shutting down the pool without the City requiring it.

“The oversight of our pools is by the City of Berkeley but there’s no reason why we can’t have lower limits than what is the absolute edge of where they’d shut it down – when we’d determine it was not safe to occupy,” Jones said.

Parent frustration over district handling

Berkeley High parents have repeatedly expressed frustration over the district’s handling of the pool, and got even more incensed in September when BUSD spokesman Mark Coplan seemed to belittle the problem in comments he made to the Huffington Post. Coplan said that the pool shutdown was merely a cautious response to “routine chemical imbalance.”

“I stuck my hand in there and when I pulled it out, all five fingers were still attached,” Coplan said to the Huffington Post.

“The short-term effects we can visibly see, and they discount those,” said Marc Beyeler, father to a water polo player who experienced hair loss. “The long term? Those we have no idea about,” he said, referencing the CDC’s warnings about chloramines.

Coplan said he never meant to discredit the swimmers’ complaints. “There’s no question about what the kids dealt with and what they experienced,” he said. “The only question that I thought about was what level of contamination the pool was in.”

Knorr Systems, the outside consultant that inspects the pool, assured Coplan that the chemical situation was not dangerous and that accepted levels in the United States are much lower than in Europe and elsewhere — but the new internal procedure will likely allow for a district-initiated preemptive shutdown even before the chemicals reach the accepted limits.

Recent inspections have found chemical levels to be within the accepted range, Jones said.

The Berkeley High competition pool was constructed in 2004 as part of a $37 million expansion project financed by bond measure AA that added a library, dance studios, cafeteria, college center and administrative offices to the campus.

City closes school pool after kids show serious symptoms (09.27.13)

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  • Completely_Serious

    If this were The Onion, the headline would read, “BUSD takes over troubled Berkeley school district”

  • guest

    Why not hire a professional pool service? We might get professional service at a reasonable price.

  • Former BHSer

    Lew Jones to the rescue! What a great, well-researched story by a former BHS Jacket staffer. BUSD has a very mixed record with pools, it seems. By the way, Al Wilright may be back on the job now, so perhaps he could be given another opportunity for comment?

  • dianarossi

    I really appreciate the fact that Berkeleyside filed a public records request back in November. I bet that helped get our school district to start taking this issue seriously. However, it makes me angry that that is what it takes to make our school district accountable for the basic safety of our kids.

  • guest

    Mark Coplan is a joke. I can’t believe that the district has enough funds to pay for a spokesperson…most districts don’t. And, what does he do most of the time? He’s the district photographer. Think of what BUSD can do for kids with his salary…

  • Cynical Observer

    Two additional questions Berkeleyside needs to ask are:

    (1) Does the school district mandates that high school students take swimming classes?

    (2) What sort of documentation are parents required to provide to the high school if a student is to be exempted from any “mandatory swimming class requirement”?

    Around the U.S. compelling student to take swimming classes in school is a common public education policy. Those sorts of policies have been around since the 1950’s, despite a laundry list of untoward health consequences to some students.

  • Completely_Serious

    The answer is likely No. The reason will be found in the union contracts.

  • Natalie Orenstein

    Hi, I’m the author of this article. The district does not mandate that high school students take swimming classes.

  • elp

    The district does not mandate swimming in high school, however, the kids are required by state law to have 2 years of PE. In their freshman year there is time in their schedules to take a PE class, or dance…..but it cuts out an elective (art, music, foreign language, computer programming….) As they move forward it is difficult to fit in a PE class, unless they take it as an elective, so the default is to participate in an after school sport to get the PE units. In general this is a workable solution and BHS has a very broad sports program for the kids to choose from.

    As a parent of a water polo player I am very hopeful that the district can make the pool reliably safe for the kids to use. My son is starting to get the hair back on his arms and legs, got his hair cut to remove the damaged hair on his head, and so far has not had to resort to using asthma inhalers he got after the 2012 season (he coughed and wheezed for months after waterpolo, which he had never done before) to maintain healthy breathing this year.

    Thank you Berkelyside for staying with this story.

  • Brendan

    For the record drowning is the fifth leading cause of accidental death in the US. ( Requiring all children to take swim class is a good thing, not a bad thing. An institution’s inability to maintain a safe environment is inexcusable, especially because it really isn’t that difficult to do, but that should not deter people form learning a skill that could save their life.

  • Woolsey

    That is horrible – and inexcusable. Heads should roll in the building and grounds department. Is there no accountability in the High School? So, the key jobs that they can’t manage to do competently themselves get farmed out to elsewhere in the district? Pathetic.

  • Colum

    The Berkeley High swimming pool is legendary. This stuff was going on all the way back to the early 1970’s. The swimming pool (and the locker rooms) was the red headed stepchild of that place. Thanks for a trip down memory lane…Bill Gaebler, by the way, is a class act and a very nice guy, for what it’s worth.

  • guest

    BUSD is a nightmare of corruption that Berkeleyside could spend months worth of stories covering, but they don’t seem very interested in the the topic.

  • Hmmm. If Berkeleyside isn’t very interested BUSD, why did we do this story? Not that we have suggested there is any corruption involved, but poor management.

  • guest

    Hmmm. How long have readers been asking you to do a story on BUSD’s rampant enrollment fraud only for you to pay lip service and ultimately ignore the issue?

  • Bob Jones

    A lot going on here. Pools are inherently expensive, both to build and maintain. Much more so than basketball courts. School resources, particularly for athletics, are limited. Chlorine, no gettin’ around it, and tough to manage. At my extremely affluent high school the pool turned brown hair lighter brown or blond and blond hair GREEN (and the water was very cold). UV and ozone can fix all that (except the cold water), but it ain’t cheap. Time for the Berkeley Brahmins to step in?

  • Hmmm. . This must be the commentator formerly known as Pragmatic Progressive who runs a website entirely devoted to what you perceive as widespread enrollment fraud at BUSD. You now only comment under a pseudonym as a way to protest our new comments policy but are still commenting actively (3 times today, by my count and 7 times this week.) All I can say is we are working on a story about enrollment at BUSD. I have told you that multiple times. Given the fact it is a story that needs a lot of reporting, and we have a tiny staff, it is taking a long time. If you spent as much time encouraging Berkeleyside to do something as you do discouraging us, it might help.

  • Cammy

    This isn’t just a Berkeley High problem. Anyone been to the pool in Albany, CA? I think near the middle school. It was so full of chlorine you couldn’t bear to be in the room for a few minutes. I think this is generally a very common problem.

  • We are not ignoring it.

  • aperson

    There is an unspoken issue at the root of this problem that is taboo to mention in polite Berkeley society and is therefore not mentioned in the article — even though it’s the real explanation for what’s going on here,

    There is an ingrained attitude among certain elements in BUSD (as well as the Berkeley city government) that some public/school projects and issues should not get funding if they are perceived as primarily benefiting white people. Especially if there is a budget crunch (which there always is) and the same money could be instead used to benefit minorities, or everyone equally.

    For example, I knew people in the city’s Parks department and they told me it was always very difficult to get any funding for projects to repair or upgrade the Rose Garden and other “hills” parks because the institutional activists would cry racism that the money was not instead spent on parks in West or South Berkeley.

    The same issue crops up at Berkeley High too — including in this instance. Swimming is perceived as a “white kids'” sport (s perception confirmed by the photos illustrating this article), and as a result there is always going to be foot-dragging, ignoring and behind-the-scenes intentional sabotaging of any attempt to get funding or to spend resources to fix the pool.

    There is resentment. Racial resentment. It’s a systemic attitude that black students deserve resources more than do white students, as a sort of reparations,

    Though this attitude persists to this day, no one (needless to say) will admit to it, nor will anyone discuss it openly. I’m quite sure that this attitude is at least in part the root cause of why the pool almost never gets fixed.

  • CS

    I concur – this has been my experience too. As a new parent in the BUSD in the early 1990’s, when I naively asked about GATE programs, teachers told me that since wealthy white parents could afford enrichment classes, the BUSD chose not to fund programs for gifted students, implying that these students would be mostly white. I was a student parent who could not afford enrichment classes, nor could I afford private school for my kids, which many of the more affluent white parents in the neighborhood chose at the time. These families were disdained and disparaged, and there was little effort to recruit them or to make make them feel welcomed at their local public school. The prevailing sentiment among both teachers and parents was that the public schools were not for the wealthy white of Berkeley, they were for the poor kids from the flats. As a time-starved and money-starved student parent, I could see that it was the wealthy white families at the school who raised the money for the new playground, hired the art teacher, and spent hours in the classrooms working one-on-one with the kids, and I appreciated that. So it made sense to me to try to draw them back to the BUSD. Yet these hard-working parents also embraced the idea that they, as white parents, should not expect much from the BUSD, and they even apologized for their over-representation at PTA meetings and school events. I do think that things have improved in the last couple decades, but the attitude persists, and is responsible for a lot of expensive wrong-headed policies in the BUSD.

  • guest

    The sad fact is that BUSD and the City of Berkeley are really so incredibly incompetent that it takes 4 years to solve problems with pH levels in a pool.

    Remember that the next time they try to use homeowners as a piggy bank and ask for more money at the ballot box. We need significant reform and more transparency and accountability before we should be willing to gift them with any more of our hard-earned money.

  • curiousjorge

    is this a comment thread bout BUSD that doesn’t include a rant about enrollment fraud? isn’t there some way that we can blame kids from Oakland (lets face it, they tend to have higher pH levels) for the problems with the pool?


    This article and the comments are eye opening and very discouraging. This should be a very simple problem to fix, yet it has persisted for years? If BUSD can’t or won’t fix a straightforward technical facilities problem, how in the world can we trust that they’re equipped to address more difficult questions of pedagogy and resource allocation? Yikes.

  • Whoa Mule

    This article by Ms. Orenstein and a prior one by Eli Wolfe on this subject are first class pieces of reporting. It can be very difficult to get City employee’s to acknowledge problems. You have to dig and keep digging.

    But if you don’t like Frances’ journalism, do what I do…provide some financial support for Berkeleyside, so that she will stay here for us commentors to torment, castigate and admonish for many years.

  • Dissapointed parent.

    Sad that a school system as rich and supported by residents as BUSD offers so little to gifted students that most are forced to either go to private schools or languish far below their learning level.

  • Bishop George Berkeley

    I can’t let pass this opportunity to second your praise: Bill is a class act and a nice guy. And he’s been a class act, on behalf of countless Berkeley High kids, for decades now.
    (And I trust we won’t be reading, in the future, about how his advocacy on this issue resulted in some type of unofficial retribution.)
    Yeah, those old BHS pools (originally built in the 1930s, I think) were spectacularly neglected. I recall a whole year of swim team without showers after the lockerrooms were condemned. And then the pools themselves…ay!

  • Guest

    These comments that you are dismissing are speaking from their experiences. So you think the problems arise from incompetence alone? Perhaps, but that is your theory. The other comments are at least as valid as yours and stir up some areas for consideration.

  • luckypablo

    Thanks for the article. But there is more I’d love to know: Who specifically was not returning Gaebler’s calls? How many other serious maintenance problems are being ignored? And what is the underlying problem? Incompetence? Laziness? Lack of funding? Ignorance about pools?
    Thank goodness the parents of the pool users were finally heeded

  • susankl

    What are the reasons that the parents did not boycott the pool until the chemistry problems were solved?

  • Whoa Mule

    1.) A person’s clothing is not considered part of their physical appearance.
    2.) If a person appears at a public function (like a rally on the steps of city hall) and is photographed, merely re-posting the photograph would not be considered defamation. Defamation is the communication of a false statement.

  • been there

    The problem is far from being solved with the District taking over the pool. In fact, I fear this is a smokescreen from the District to make us ALL think they take the problem seriously and will FIX it.
    There are no details (not surprised) from the District to SAY what they will DO to MAINTAIN the pool within the acceptable ph and chlorine limits, who will be the certified pool operator(s) who will maintain the pool. So as you can see they are short on details on purpose because they don’t have a clue as to how to take care of this pool. It was offered to them to have staff at Berk YMCA who operate the pools there help them to maintain the pool and this suggestion was nixed. My child was one of those waterpolo players last fall who had all the problems; white hair, loss of hair, coughing (had to have a steroid inhaler), irritated eyes.
    The way BUSD has “fixed” the problem just means that parents will have even less access to those who are “maintaining” the pool once the problems come back this spring with the Swim Team season.
    Thank you for this report and follow-up but don’t get too comfortable, you will be reporting again about this I guarantee it.

  • Elp

    Many of the kids didn’t tell their parents things were haywire because they didn’t want the pool closed this year.

  • Whoa Mule

    OK, here is how I would rank schoolyard bullying from worst to least bad;
    1) Wedgie
    2) Swirly
    3) Noogies
    4) Flat tire
    5) Throwing gym shoes into BHS swimming pool
    6) Derogatory comments about large strange polyester garments.

  • Heather_W_62

    It is beyond me how it took BUSD this long to fix the problem. I swim regularly at King Jr High and last summer, the pool pH was really off — a friend and i discussed this with the staff and within a week, they started to work on fixing it. They did say it would take a few months to completely refresh the pool, but it was infinitely more tolerable within a week or two. I do not understand how the High School pool was left as a health hazard for so long.

  • apersontryingtostaycool

    Dead wrong! The same thing happened to the football team in 2011 when their locker room, weight room, bleachers and field were closed in the third week of their season without notice and they were forced outside with their equipment to change in the rain. The football team was majority African-American. Race is not an issue here. Incompetent administration is the issue.

  • BloUrHausDown

    Mark Coplan…what an obnoxious jerk. Strange choice to be a spokeman, eh? Sickens me that I have to cough up taxes to pay this worthless lump’s salary.