Harford County school board members were suggesting anything they could think of Monday that would raise money to keep the public school system's three pools open and preserve the interscholastic swimming program.
The school system also faces spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair the pools and keep them operational.
The brainstorming session was part of the second work session, hosted by the school board, on Harford County Public Schools' proposed fiscal 2018 budget.
High school swimmers and their parents, as well as prospective high school swimmers, filled the board meeting room at the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air as part of continued protests to preserve the swimming program.
"Please do not end swimming in Harford County Public Schools," Madison Thompson, 10, of Aberdeen, said.
The Roye-Williams Elementary School student, who spoke to the board with two friends and fellow swimmers standing beside her, is involved in youth swimming programs and wants to swim in high school.
"Swimming is not only a huge part of my life, but an important lifesaving skill to all," Madison said.
She was one of about 15 speakers who urged the board to preserve swimming.
Hefty repair tab
The need to raise money was prompted not only by continued public pressure to keep pools open, but also the news that it will cost an estimated $750,000 to fix long-standing issues with the 40-year-old pool at North Harford Middle School.
The aging pools at Edgewood Middle School and Magnolia Middle School could soon need extensive repairs, too.
"We're talking about, over a period of time, approximately $750,000 to repair that pool and get it in operable condition," Joe Licata, chief of administration for HCPS, said.
Last September, board members approved a capital improvement program for 2018 that included $250,000 to repair a ruptured main drain line in the North Harford Middle School pool.
Licata noted Monday that the $250,000 request was a "place holder" while a contractor assessed the extent of the repairs needed beyond the main drain line.
School officials got an estimate of $750,000 to make all the repairs to a pool that was built in 1976, according to Licata. He said it would cost "in the neighborhood" of $400,000 just to repair the drain line.
"That pool will probably be out of commission for an entire school year" during repairs, Licata said.
He said the contractor advised the Edgewood Middle pool, built in 1978, and the Magnolia Middle pool, built in 1979, "are of similar age and condition" to North Harford Middle's pool.
"We should adjust and adapt our future capital budget to include similar items that we're going to replace at North Harford Middle School," he said.
School board President Nancy Reynolds noted projections that "we need approximately $350,000 per pool, just to replace the equipment."
The school board approved using an appropriation from the operating fund balance, or cash reserves, last June as part of this year's budget to keep the pools open for one year.
"A revenue source was to be identified to continue the operation of the pools," Licata said Monday. "Since that revenue stream was not in place at the time the superintendent submitted her request to the Board of Education for subsequent years, it was removed from the proposed budget request for FY18."
He stressed that "swimming as a sport has not been targeted."
"It's the cost of the infrastructure and the ongoing maintenance to repair three pools," Licata said.
Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan has submitted a $455.2 million operating budget for the board's approval for the coming fiscal year. School system officials have recommended more than $2.5 million in cost-saving measures, including eliminating nearly $449,000 swim program personnel and pool operations expenses.
"It's a very expensive program to operate because of the capital investment and because of the ongoing maintenance and cost we need to sustain those swimming pools," Licata said.
Amanda Dorsey, the student representative to the board, asked why there is still some money in the budget for the summer swimming program – the pools are heavily used by the community for various parks and recreation swim programs.
Dorsey pointed out $31,211 for professional salaries and $14,196 for supplies.
"My thought process was, after July 1, that we would have no financial support to maintain these pools at all, so if the summer programs are going through July, who are we paying?" she asked.
The next fiscal year begins July 1.
Budget Director Eric Clark explained that the summer swim program would remain in place, under the superintendent's proposed budget, and then the pools would be closed in August once they are drained and cleaned.
Fundraising brainstorming session
Board members asked about several ways to raise money to keep the pools open, such as whether the pools could be rented out for events run by for-profit organizations, sharing maintenance costs with the county, selling advertising or naming rights for pool facilities.
Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said nonprofit organizations can use school facilities, if they do not charge a fee for people to get in, but for-profit entities cannot use them, noting state law requires that use of facilities has to be "free and open to the public."
"The use of our facilities cannot be granted to entities that do not have open admission for public use," he said.
Patrick Spicer, the school system's lawyer, said any organization allowed to use a school facility would be subject only to charges for "reasonable use," such as custodial services.
'We're not land holders and commercial operators of properties that we would just lease for profit," Spicer said.
The school system has policies governing advertising at athletic facilities and naming rights.
Joe Voskuhl, the board vice president and a former Bel Air High School principal, said community booster clubs typically handle advertisements, such as those that are found on football field scoreboards.
Board member Jansen Robinson suggested putting the money for the swim program back in next year's budget while school officials and the community look into potential revenue sources.
"At the end of the day, whatever decision we come to, the public needs to know that we've done our due diligence," he said.
Robinson noted the board must vote to adopt the superintendent's budget Jan. 23, before sending it to state and local funding authorities.
"That doesn't give us a lot of time to get the answers that we would need," he said.
Canavan told Spicer and her top aides to present information during the Jan. 19 budget work session about the legal considerations involved in board members' ideas.
The next public input session on the budget will be 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Roberty Building. It will be for public comment only, no presentation by HCPS officials.