Since opening in 2007, staffing challenges and changing school calendars have forced The Waterpark to shorten its season, first by remaining open only on weekends after school began and later closing down the day before school started.
A swim season that initially stretched beyond three months is now four weeks shorter, leaving Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation officials and board members with questions about the long-term future of the Central Park facility.
“There’s always the hope that (the beginning of the school year) doesn’t encroach even further. We’re ultimately going to have to look at the long term as we really have to focus on the pools for capital repairs and replacements,” CCPR Director Michael Klitzing said. “One of the long-term discussions the park board and community leaders are going to have is (about) what is the best type of asset and use of that land. If it becomes that (The Waterpark is open) a month and a half because of the school schedule, then it becomes a completely different conversation.”
CCPR runs into staffing shortages at The Waterpark when school begins because most of its lifeguards are high school students. This year, 63 percent of lifeguards were age 17 or younger. Many attend Carmel High School, which began the school year Aug. 7 (three days earlier than 2022), and others attend nearby districts that returned to the classroom even earlier.
Klitzing said it has become progressively more difficult to find part-time seasonal workers willing to extend their employment beyond the start of the school year.
“We basically have gotten to the point where we just don’t have a labor force to not only be open during the weekdays, which was a longstanding practice for us, but it was getting so that we were so short-staffed we really couldn’t meet the minimum requirements for staffing, even on the weekends,” he said. “We want to provide a great experience for everyone, but we also want to provide the safest experience. If you don’t have enough lifeguards, you can’t provide that safe experience.”
The staffing challenge is not unique to Carmel, according to Rick Root, president of the Worldwide Waterpark Association.
“For many years, school districts around the country have been moving their start dates earlier in the summer – in many cases, as early as the first week of August,” Root said. “In areas where schools have moved away from the traditional summer break of Memorial Day to Labor Day, waterparks and many other seasonal businesses have had to shorten their operating schedule due to a lack of guests and staff when schools are in session.”
Klitzing said that Indiana school districts tend to have among the shortest summer breaks in the nation. He said parks department leaders across the state are rethinking recreational offerings during the hottest months.
“A lot of communities are debating, especially in Indiana, do we invest in new pools or do we create more splash pads where you don’t have to have the staff to be able to support them,” Klitzing said. “It’s an unfortunate tradeoff, because the swimming experience is so important, and it is not the same as going to a splash pad that doesn’t have standing water. But that’s the compromise that a lot of communities are making.”
As some of the original infrastructure at The Waterpark nears the end of its usefulness, Klitzing said CCPR is considering whether it can repair or replace certain features in a way that requires less staff.
“The fewer staff we need, the easier it is to find the staff necessary to operate it,” he said.
Carmel Clay Schools did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.
ESE staffing challenges
When Carmel Clay Schools adjusted its daily schedule in 2020 to begin the elementary school day before high school classes began, it created a staffing challenge for the Extended School Enrichment after-school program run by Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation at all CCS elementary schools.
Previously, the program employed a large number of high school students who would head to an elementary campus after school. Now, many of the children in the ESE program are already gone for the day by the time high school students could arrive, CCPR Director Michael Klitzing said.
CCS is working with CCPR to create an internship program for high school students to leave during the school day to work at ESE and receive credits and experience.