From the outside, Howard County must seem like the proverbial land of milk and honey, a place where all are happy and, unlike those annoying credit card commercials, no one says "no" to anything.
It must have been a shock, then, last month when Mike Williams, the county's coordinator of athletics, actually did say no -- to the concept of offering swimming as an interscholastic sport.
After a comprehensive study, Williams told the Howard school board that it simply was not feasible for the county's 12 high schools to begin competitive swimming.
He cited a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact it would cost between $11,000 and $12,000 per school to get a swimming program going.
"You can't keep everyone happy, as we well know," said Williams, who had been athletic director at Glenelg. "At some point, you have to decide: Do we want another sport in our athletic program, or is that money better spent in our special-ed program or in technology or hiring teachers to bridge the gap in test scores in math or English?
"It becomes a priority-setting thing, because we're not a bottomless pit of money."
What Williams and Howard officials are up against is that very perception. After all, since the county is the fastest-growing jurisdiction in the Baltimore area and has the most affluent population base in the area, shouldn't it be able to give its citizenry everything?
The latest push for swimming in the county started in August, when some students and parents asked to have the sport added to the competitive program during a school board meeting, though similar suggestions have percolated for years, Williams said.
Williams, who took over as coordinator last March when Don Disney left for Texas, began compiling data from nearby counties Montgomery, Prince George's, Frederick and Harford, all of which offer competitive swimming, and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, which don't.
In truth, Howard already offers its students nearly everything, at least from an interscholastic sports standpoint. The county has a 23-sport roster, which is as comprehensive as any jurisdiction in the state offers, with cheerleading and golf having come on board just this school year, Williams said.
Currently, roughly 40 percent of the county's high school students participate in interscholastic sports, which is above the national average of 32 percent, Williams said. But to add more sports, Williams said, "becomes problematic in terms of budget and facilities."
Indeed, none of the county schools has a swimming pool and all of the models Williams drew up in evaluating whether to add swimming assumed the county would have to rent time at area pools.
The problem, however, is that there are only six available indoor pools in the county, Williams said, and the four of them that are under Columbia Association control could only be used for practice, not for competition.
The other two pools, operated by Howard Community College and the YMCA, respectively, could not offer practice times that could reasonably handle 12 different school schedules so that students weren't consistently practicing or competing early in the morning or late at night.
Logistically, Williams said the best he could do was come up with a schedule that would have each team get no more than three hours of practice a week and no more than five meets per season, a far cry from what school systems that already offer swimming provide.
And there is the cost. Williams said that to run a full swimming program, with officials and lifeguards, not to mention factoring in transportation and other costs, would have meant $400,000, a significant increase in the nearly $3 million athletic budget.
"Even if the money was there, we couldn't run a 12-meet schedule [the maximum the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association allows] because the facilities aren't there," Williams said.
Down the road, there may be a solution to help such counties as Howard, where demand runs ahead of supply, to give its population what it wants, in the form of an athletic fee assessed to all who want to play.
That's an answer that Williams, who has been in the Howard educational system for 30 years, wants no part of. For him, the playing fields are an extension of the classroom, where youths learn to be good citizens and to get along, as well as strengthen themselves physically. Making kids pay a fee gets in the way of that learning, he believes.
"If we want to use our extracurricular program to help do that, we need to make sure that it's accessible to all our students, and not just the students who can afford an activity fee. To me, that's exclusionary," Williams said.