Lack of swimming lessons a blow to a water-based city

It might have been the most surprising, if not disturbing, headline in last week’s Ozaukee Press: “Port swim lessons a victim of staff crunch.” A subheadline added: “City cancels long-running program for season because of fewer, busier employees.”

The unfortunate meaning of the headlines and the accompanying news story is that for the rest of this summer the City of Port Washington is not providing a vital public service that it has made available to generations of city residents dating back to the mid-20th century.

Swimming lessons are under the aegis of the Parks and Recreation Department. Taxpayers fund a sizable budget for the department, which in turn delivers an array of recreational opportunities that add greatly to Port Washington’s appeal as a community to settle in, raise a family and enjoy the outdoors.

Teaching children to swim has been an essential element of that service for about as long as a city recreation department has existed in Port Washington. Parents depend on it. Their children need to learn to swim—to acquire a lifetime skill, be safe in, on and near the water and have the ability to experience the enjoyment that being a swimmer makes possible.

This matters in every community, but it matters more in Port Washington, a city that is virtually immersed in water, thanks to its intimate relationship with Lake Michigan and the beaches, marina, breakwater and boating opportunities available to the public, as well as the presence of the marvelous city-owned Pirates Hollow Community Water Park.

Swimming is cemented in Port’s history and culture. Swimming lessons were given more than 70 years ago in the city’s first swimming “pool”—an excavated enlargement, crude by today’s standards, of what was known as Guenther’s Pond. Swimmers changed their clothes in the city bathhouse (now the home of the Port Washington Yacht Club) across the street from the pool. The bathhouse was originally built for use by people who swam in Lake Michigan from the beach overlooked by the building.

The surprising step backward on swimming is the result of a staff shortage. The recreation department has fewer lifeguards and swimming instructors than it needs to properly staff the water park during its open swimming hours and to teach swimming classes. Some of the employees qualified for lifeguarding and swimming instruction have multiple jobs that limit their ability to put in extra hours.

This is a familiar refrain. The national labor shortage, tied to the pandemic, a suddenly hot economy and changing attitudes about work, is making operations difficult for public and private employers alike. Nevertheless, many of them are coping and managing to deliver their most essential services and products. It is noteworthy that the recreation departments of Grafton, Cedarburg and Mequon-Thiensville are continuing to offer swimming lessons this summer.

Port Washington Recreation Department Director Kiley Scherer called her decision to cancel swimming lessons “frustrating” and “disheartening.” Parents will surely agree.

On a positive note, the director made it clear in her comments for the Press news story that her department understands the importance to the community of swimming lessons. “I think people want to make sure their kids learn to swim,” she said, “and we do too.”

The recreation department will need to prove that by doing whatever it takes to ensure that its swimming lessons program will not be interrupted next summer—or ever.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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