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Harford school swimming advocates speak out against budget cuts they say will kill program

Kate Ragan holds up her sign made by Edgewood High School student and swimmer Maggie Malia before Wednesday night's School Board budget input session meeting at the School Board headquarters in Bel Air. Advocates say proposed budget cuts will decimate the Harford County Public Schools swimming program.
Kate Ragan holds up her sign made by Edgewood High School student and swimmer Maggie Malia before Wednesday night's School Board budget input session meeting at the School Board headquarters in Bel Air. Advocates say proposed budget cuts will decimate the Harford County Public Schools swimming program. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Advocates for Harford County Public Schools swimming programs were out in force Wednesday evening to decry potential budget cuts that they believe will kill both instructional programs and high school interscholastic competition.

"You're going to submit a budget to the county executive in the next month that shows no swimming program," parent Carolyn McNeirney said during the first of several Board of Education work sessions on Superintendent Barbara Canavan's proposed $455.2 million operating budget for the 2017-18 school year.

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The proposed cuts in pool maintenance personnel and coaching stipends amount to less than one percent of total spending proposed by Canavan.

McNeirney, whose niece is a member of the C. Milton Wright High School swim team and whose son, a seventh grader at Patterson Mill Middle School, plans to swim in high school, was one of 20 people who spoke about the budget during a public input portion of Wednesday's session than ran more than two hours.

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People who gathered in the board meeting room in the A. A. Roberty Building in Bel Air also asked for better teacher pay, rescinding the controversial $100 drama participation fee instituted last year and restoring overnight stay program at Harford Glen Environmental Center, the latter which Canavan has tried to keep from being revived after it was eliminated two years ago.

This year could be the last for the Harford County Public Schools interscholastic swimming program, advocates for the program fear, if proposed cuts to spending on personnel and pool maintenance are kept in the school system's proposed fiscal 2018 operating budget.

The swimming advocates included athletes – many from the Edgewood High School swim team – coaches, parents, plus middle school students who want to swim in high school and a former high school swimmer. They held up protest signs before and during the work session.

Several noted the pools at North Harford Middle School, Edgewood Middle and Magnolia Middle are not just used by the more than 300 high school swimmers, but thousands of middle school students for their physical education classes and multiple county residents of all ages who participate in recreational swim programs.

The advocates also say closing the pools could increase the risk of drownings because many students otherwise cannot get access to a facility to learn to swim.

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Ida Ehrhardt, a 2013 graduate of C. Milton Wright who is a senior at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, talked about how much the sport meant to her as a varsity swimmer in high school. She called swimming "a refuge from school and a reason to strive for a healthier lifestyle," and she noted the strong support network provided by her teammates and coaches.

"There are many people in this room who want to help save this sport," Ehrhardt said. "If you delete the swimming budget, then we don't have a chance to save the sport that means so much to the community."

Canavan wants to eliminate a combined $448,918 in expenses related to the swim program and maintenance of three HCPS pools, according to the proposed budget.

Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan has submitted a $455.2 million proposed operating budget for fiscal 2018, a $16.3 million increase that once again depends on more county government financial support.

The cuts to the swim program and pool maintenance are among $2.51 million in proposed "cost savings," planned by the superintendent. Budget Director Eric Clark went through each HCPS division funded through the operating budget and noted individual increases in salaries and wages, as well as proposed cuts.

Clark also identified $271,453 in cuts from the Harford Glen overnight stay program. The program, a tradition for HCPS fifth graders for 35 years, was eliminated in 2015. Canavan noted at the time the prohibitive expense of upgrading the facilities and a bedbug problem that was not resolved despite visits by exterminators.

A street protest and scores of speakers failed to persuade the Harford County Board of Education to reconsider its decision in June to impose a $100 fee to participate in extracurricular drama programs.

The school board appropriated money from the operating fund balance, or cash reserves, for this year's budget to keep the three pools open for one more year and to make facility improvements to help restore overnight visits at Harford Glen.

School board members encouraged swimming advocates to work with school officials to find ways to raise additional funds to keep the program going.

But speakers reminded the board they have done just that through fundraising drives and seeking business sponsorships for the pools and swim program. What they haven't received is cooperation from the school system, they said.

"We're still here," said parent Leo Bulavko, of Edgewood. "We're still enthusiastic and we're still willing to provide you with information and people to tell you why swimming and all of its programs should remain a part of the budget."

Members of the Harford County Board of Education got a standing ovation from an above-capacity crowd Monday night following the board's unanimous approval of using more than $552,000 in the school system's fund balance to keep three school system pools operating for the next year.

Bulavko's son, Josh, is a member of the Edgewood High swim team and a youth swim coach. He and his son have been working with other swimming advocates through the group Save Harford County Swimming Inc. to raise community awareness and money,

"I urge this board, in the strongest terms, to reinstate swimming in the budget next year," Bulavko said.

Connie Cullinan, a parent of a Bel Air High School swimmer, noted ending the swimming program could mean those student athletes are at risk of getting into drugs and crime if they lose their activity.

"I hope and pray that you can see these students as more than numbers," she said.

The next school budget public input session will be at 6 p.m. Monday in the school board meeting room. Visit http://www.hcps.org/budget for more information.



Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.
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