Here is a question that should be easy to answer: Does every child have access to our town pools in the summer?

In Montclair, a progressive suburb with a median household income of more than $134,000 and a strong social justice bent, many people might assume the answer is yes. But they would be wrong.

Even before the construction-related closures of Nishuane and Essex pools this past summer, there were barriers to accessing our municipal pools, especially for the 13% of public school families who qualify for free/reduced-price lunch. 

A summer pool pass for a family of four costs $250, which is less than in some neighboring towns and yet too much for many families in Montclair. Available financial aid is neither well publicized nor substantial enough. A household of four with annual income below the free-lunch threshold of $36,075 would be eligible for a 50% discount on the pool pass, while a household of four with an annual income below the reduced-lunch threshold of $51,338 would be eligible for only a 25% discount.

We believe that none of our neighbors should have to struggle to find an extra $125 to $190, and when we conducted a survey earlier this year, many agreed. We saw that 33% of respondents described town pool passes as “difficult to afford,” a figure that rose to 40% for residents living in the Fourth Ward. Additionally, in our survey, 80% of respondents were unaware that any level of financial aid was even offered.

Pool passes must be picked up at the municipal office between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on weekdays – not easy to do if one is working during the day. The time has come to upgrade to a system that offers downloadable passes that can be easily accessed. If we once again offered guest access by selling pool passes online, we would also have a new revenue-producing stream that could help cover the cost of pool access for all.

We applaud the efforts of staff members in Montclair’s Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, who work tirelessly to provide the best services they can with a limited budget and head count. We ask not for these hardworking employees to do more with less, but for Montclair’s current and future leaders to ensure their stated commitment to equity and social justice is reflected in our town’s municipal code, budget and systems. 

This is unglamorous work, connecting detailed, passionate attention to the lived experience of all families in Montclair with insider knowledge of the workings of municipal government and day-to-day processes – but it is work that must start with our elected and appointed leaders.

A strong first step would be to amend the financial aid ordinance so that pool passes and recreation programs are fully covered for families with the greatest financial need, a level supported by more than 50% of our survey respondents. The next step would be to invest more in the recreation department, which provides our town’s most accessible options for pools, summer camps and sports programs.

There is also an unmet need for free or low-cost swim instruction and a town recreation shuttle that could offer access to pools (particularly in situations like last summer, when only a single pool in Upper Montclair was open). 

In the long term, the time has come for an equity-driven capital improvement plan for recreational facilities, including our municipal pools, which have suffered from neglect and underinvestment for decades.  

The question of whether every child can cool off in a pool in the summer should be one we’re all proud to answer. Let’s come together swiftly to meet a higher standard on this and the many other tests we now face.

Amber Reed and Kay Sarlin Wright are residents of Montclair.