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Advocates fear Harford County Public Schools swim program could end with proposed cuts in budget

Budget cuts, both operations costs and positions, are being proposed to the Harford County Public Schools swimming program. Supporters say swimming instruction programs and interscholastic competitive swimming could be doomed if the cuts are approved by the school board.
Budget cuts, both operations costs and positions, are being proposed to the Harford County Public Schools swimming program. Supporters say swimming instruction programs and interscholastic competitive swimming could be doomed if the cuts are approved by the school board. (MATT BUTTON AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

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.

"There is no possible way that care and upkeep would be eliminated and swimming would continue," said Josh Bulavko, a 16-year-old junior at Edgewood High School and member of the school's swim team.

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The proposed budget for the 2017-18 school year that was released by Superintendent Barbara Canavan to the Board of Education on Dec. 19 proposes elimination of operating costs for the three pools HCPS owns. The board is slated to hold its first of four public input and work sessions on the proposed budget at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the meeting room at the A.A. Roberty school headquarters building in Bel Air.

The budget reductions come at a time when advocates for the HCPS swimming program and interscholastic swimming competition have pushed hard to save both, since they were almost eliminated in the current budget approved last spring.

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The 2016-17 high school winter swim season started in mid-November and runs through the end of January.

Bulavko also leads a nonprofit community organization, Save Harford County Swimming Inc., made up of fellow swimmers, coaches and parents who have been working to preserve the swim program and keep three HCPS-operated pools open through advocacy and fundraising.

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 group was born out of community efforts that started in June, shortly after the previous school year ended, to convince school board members to reverse a proposal to close aging pools at Edgewood Middle School, Magnolia Middle School and North Harford Middle School. Those pools, which remain open thanks to a last-minute, board-approved transfer from the fiscal 2017 operating fund balance, are used for high school swim practices and meets as well as community swim programs such as teaching youths to swim.

"It's a life skill that stays with you forever, no matter which form it may be," said Bulavko, who is a coach with the Joppatowne Tigersharks community swim program for children and teens that meets at the Magnolia Middle pool.

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Canavan has proposed a $455.2 million operating budget for next year, which is $16.3 million more than the current year's budget of $438.9 million but still the smallest increase she has proposed in three years as superintendent.

Budget Director Eric Clark told board members that HCPS officials have "scoured" the budget for $2.5 million in cost savings.

The board is scheduled to vote on adopting the budget request Jan. 23 and then send it to county and state funding authorities.

Bulavko and other members of Save Harford County Swimming saw proposed cuts to swim personnel and pool maintenance as they reviewed the proposed budget. The budget is available online at http://www.hcps.org/budget.

Cost-saving measures include removing $88,916 for swim coaching stipends, $10,614 for officiating fees and $40,949 for transportation to practices and meets, according to Page 257 in the extra-curricular activities section.

Six swim technician positions, HCPS employees who maintain the pools, are also on the chopping block for next year, according to the positions section of the budget.

The superintendent also proposes reducing the number of inclusion helpers, who assist students with special needs, by 27.5 positions, from 199.5 to 172, plus add 15 paraeducator positions and nine teacher/counselor positions. The school system would have 5,147 total positions next year, according to the budget, a net reduction of nine positions from this year.

A proposal to close Harford County Public Schools three indoor pools and eliminate the interscholastic swimming program, in an effort to save money and reconcile the fiscal 2017 budget, would affect about 315 students, a tiny fraction of the roughly 37,500 students HCPS serves.

In the area of pool maintenance, school officials propose cutting $9,666 for pool water conditioning, $4,723 for pool-related equipment and $4,000 for pool-related contracting services, according to Page 278 of the operations and maintenance section of the budget.

There is zero funding proposed for the care and upkeep of natatoriums, or pool facilities, for next year, according to Page 288 of operations and maintenance. More than $4,700 is budgeted for natatoriums this year.

"Basically, there is no more swimming in the superintendent's proposed budget," Bulavko said.

"If this goes through it's going to end high school swimming," Tiffany Diepold, an Edgewood High swim coach, said of the budget in its current form.

Diepold also teaches health at Magnolia Middle School.

"Teachers are already underpaid," she said. "Most teachers are coaches."

Canavan has proposed additional funding for next year for teacher salary increases.

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.

Diepold expressed concerns about the "ripple effect" of ending the swim program, beyond just the high school teams. She said there is a risk of fewer lifeguards at pools around the county because local teens could not get certified at an HCPS facility.

"I think the drowning rate in Harford County will increase," she said.

Diepold is concerned closing the pools would mean fewer employment opportunities for school system employees to work in aquatics during the summer.

"I think the school system should do the exact opposite of what they're doing," she said.

Bulavko noted school board members have attended board meetings of Save Harford County Swimming.

School board member Robert Frisch spoke at the Dec. 19 meeting about his experience watching a high school swim meet.

"What I saw at the swim meet was the kind of enthusiasm and the kind of value that those pools bring, not only to our students, but our citizens across the county," Frisch said.

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