‘April Pool’s Day’ free summer swim class registrations in St. Paul frustrate parents

‘April Pool’s Day’ free summer swim class registrations in St. Paul frustrate parents
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The so-called “April Pool’s Day” — the first day to register for free swimming lessons offered this summer by the city of St. Paul — got off to a frustrating start for many parents, who in some cases found the free slots taken within minutes of the start of online registration on Monday morning.

All 763 slots were filled within two hours, and many almost immediately, according to St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

Phone lines at the Oxford/Jimmy Lee Rec Center were overwhelmed with some 900 calls in short order.

Monday also was the first day to register for Parks and Rec summer camps and other summer activities, which added to phone and online traffic.

Strong demand

St. Paul parent Michaela Toohey said she had planned her entire family’s summer around swim lessons, only to learn for the first time on Monday that demand was especially high as lessons were suddenly free.

“The city announced just four days ago that they were going to make summer swim lessons free this year, a big change from years past when lessons were around $75 to $100 for eight lessons,” Toohey said. “Pretty short lead time for parents to react. I was caught unaware today and the phones at (the) Aquatics (Dept.) were ringing off the hook this afternoon when I called to ask what the heck was going on.”

Earlier: Why do so many pools and beaches close in August when there’s hot weather through September?

She continued: “In the past, swim lessons have filled up relatively quickly, within a couple weeks, but never on the first day. What a waste of taxpayer dollars — the city has just subsidized swim lesson costs for a great deal of families who can pay for swim lessons. I feel deep in my bones this did not benefit all the kids they wanted to benefit.”

St. Paul Parks and Rec Director Andy Rodriguez took the criticism in stride.

“It’s always been a fill-up-fast kind of activity, and 763 kids registered across 22 zip codes today,” said Rodriguez, in an interview. “I think that’s great. If anything, it shows there’s a strong demand for swim lessons. The number of offerings boils down to the number of lifeguards, facilities and time. … The demand is there. That’s a good thing. We’re going to have to figure out how to adjust for the future.”

Software glitch

Adding to the confusion, many St. Paul parents received what city officials called a default error message indicating their child was not eligible because they did not live within the city limits, even though they do in fact reside in St. Paul.

City officials blamed the city’s new Parks and Rec registration software, RecTrac, which the city has been transitioning to for at least two months. Parks and Rec had previously been served by ActiveNet since 2008. Rodriguez said a vending consultant had already been roped in to find out what went wrong.

“After looking into the issue, we can confirm that this message was incorrectly displayed as the default for classes that became full and was unrelated to residential status,” said Rodriguez, in a written statement released Monday afternoon. “We understand the frustration this may have caused and apologize for the confusion as we continue to adjust to our new registration system.”

First-come, first-serve

Rodriguez said Parks and Rec would review the rosters to ensure city residents, and not out-of-towners, filled up the allotted slots.

In the interest of supporting equitable access to water safety, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter announced last week that swim classes would be available to city youth this summer, free of charge, with registration beginning at 9 a.m. on Monday. The “April Pool’s Day” registration launch has been promoted on the city’s social media channels and through news media.

Jacquie Mercer, a bartender, said she logged on promptly at 9 a.m., only to be shut out of the registration system. She said her family income is low, despite living in a city neighborhood where median income is high, raising suspicion in her mind that preference was allotted by geographic corner of the city. It would take her two hours of phone calls to get a human being on the line on Monday morning, and when she did, she was told hundreds of spots had been taken “within one minute,” which she considered unlikely.

She questioned why the city chose not to resort to a lottery system, as the city does for park shelters and the St. Paul Public Schools do for enrollment in popular schools.

“The decision to implement a first-come-first-serve registration system for the swimming lessons was a reckless misjudgment,” said Mercer, a parent to two boys, in a letter Monday to the mayor’s office. “It should have been obvious that such a system would favor those with fast internet connections and ample free time, disadvantaging many residents, including myself and my children, who have been enrolled in this summer program for many years, and have been eagerly awaiting this opportunity for months.”

On social media, another parent wrote on Monday: “I received error messages at 9am that prevented me from checking out dozens of times so now I’m told we were too late, despite being queued in their waiting room at 8:55 (a.m.) This was a preposterous #fail. … They keep telling me different stories on the phone.”

Rodriguez said his department would work through “community partners” to enroll additional participants “who have historically experienced barriers to water safety programs and recreation.” Certain registrations have been set aside for the disabled.

Related Articles