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Harford high school swimming advocates challenge possible end to sport petition garners more than 3,000 signatures protesting closing of HCPS pools

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.

The high school swimmers and others in the larger local swimming community say they won't go away quietly, however.

In addition to those who compete at the high school level, Harford has an extensive network of private youth swim teams, not to mention the hundreds of HCPS alumni who swam in high school, with some continuing in the sport in college. They have organized quickly since the potential cuts became public during a Board of Education budget review session earlier this week.

"I have never been so angry in my life," Josh Bulavko, a member of the Edgewood High School swim team, said when describing his reaction that the sport could be eliminated in Harford high schools.

Carolyn McNeirney, of Bel Air, has three children, ages 7, 10 and 12, who are members of the summer swim team at the Fountain Green Swim Club south of Bel Air. The team is open to children between the ages of 5 and 18, and about 240 children participate.

"I would venture to say that many of the kids on that team have swimming in high school as their end goal, and maybe even in college," said McNeirney, who is a former C. Milton Wright High School swimmer.

She said her oldest son, a sixth-grader at Patterson Mill Middle School, has been "set on high school swimming," and he was "crushed" when he learned he might not be able to do that.

"It's a huge blow to my family to have the program cut before we even get there," McNeirney said.

Parent Joan Hare, of Bel Air, said her 12-year-old daughter, Kassidy, also has her sights set on high school swimming.

"She is very much looking forward to swimming in high school, so she's disappointed to hear they may shut the pools down," Hare said.

The Southampton Middle School student is a year-round club team swimmer at the Bel Air Athletic Club.

"There is something there in that sport for all levels, and it's a lifelong sport," Hare said. "To take that away from them is just horrible."

Aging pools, expensive maintenance

The school administration has suggested closing three pools at North Harford Middle School, Edgewood Middle School and Magnolia Middle School, citing the significant expense of maintaining aging pools that date to when those schools opened in the 1960s and '70s.

The school system must close a gap of nearly $20 million between its proposed operating budget and its actual revenues from the county, state and federal governments.

Students from the 10 HCPS high schools use the pools for practices and meets.

Joseph Licata, HCPS chief of administration, told school board members during Monday's budget session that the pools are "very expensive to operate, both on a daily basis," and in terms of major capital improvements.

"Although these pools can be used, they are gradually becoming more in disrepair," Superintendent Barbara Canavan added.

It costs the school system $552,293 a year for daily pool operations, as well as instructional programs and transporting the student athletes.

School officials project it will cost $660,000 between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2022 to make major repairs to infrastructure, such as filter systems, to ensure the health and safety of pool users.

Licata noted no funds have been approved for pool repairs in the 2017 capital budget, nor could he "honestly say" he would commit the money to the pools if it was available.

"We have so many more critical needs in terms of capital," he said.

There are 42 items on the school system's list of capital requests for 2017, and swimming pool renovations rank No. 41.

The capital requests total $30.8 million, and items at the top of the list include the ongoing construction of a replacement Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, HVAC repairs at Darlington and Riverside Elementary Schools, replacing aging school buses and technology upgrades.

"In that list of priorities, the pools are not listed anywhere near No. 1 in our budget," Licata said.

Competitive high school swimming limited

Harford County is one of 14 school systems in Maryland, out of 24 total, that offers a swimming program, Deborah Basler, HCPS supervisor of high school physical education and athletics, said.

Among the systems that don't have competitive swimming is Cecil County Public Schools, whose other high school sports teams compete against Harford's in the bi-county Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic conference.

Basler said about 315 HCPS students and 37 coaches participate in interscholastic swimming from mid-November to mid-February. The pools are used for 41 practices and 10 to 11 meets per school.

She said school officials have considered closing two pools and keeping one open for the competitive swim program, but it would reduce the number of practices for each team to nine to 11, and the number of meets to four or five.

Basler said they also considered allowing teams to use community and athletic club pools around the county, but those operators must take care of their existing users "before accepting the responsibility of Harford County Public Schools."

The HCPS would be mothballed and could be reopened if adequate funding became available, according to school officials.

"We certainly would be open to repairing the pools and then opening the pools again," Canavan said.

School board member Alfred Williamson expressed concerns about a proposal to close pools "without notice and some opportunity to make the public aware, make the county aware that this is being contemplated."

The board has not yet voted to adopt next year's budget, which has to be approved before the start of next fiscal year on July 1. Board meetings are planned this Monday and June 27, both sessions starting at 6:30 p.m. in the A.A. Roberty Building at 102 S. Hickory Ave. in Bel Air.

Extensive community use

The school system pools are not just for high school teams, but also are used by community youth swim lessons and recreational swim teams, advocates say.

Josh Bulavko, the Edgewood High swimmer, is also a 10-year member of the Joppatowne Tiger Sharks recreational swim team, which practices at the Magnolia Middle pool.

"We've been swimming there ever since I've been on the team," he said.

Josh, 16, swam for EHS in his freshman and sophomore years and plans to swim next year as a junior. He's also an instructor and lifeguard with HCPS' summer swim program, teaching swimming to youths ages 6 to 18.

He posted a "Save HCPS Swimming" petition online at Tuesday, and it had more than 3,300 signatures as of late Thursday morning.

"This is a very special cause to many people around the area, because swimming is such a popular sport in Harford County, and so many people utilize the programs that are provided," he said.

Randy Slotnick is president of the Fountain Green swim team and head of the Harford County Swim League, which oversees 13 summer swim teams for children ages 4 to 18. The league has 1,500 to 1,600 participants, many who practice at HCPS pools.

Slotnick said the league has grown from less than 1,000 swimmers countywide to more than 1,500 in the past 10 years.

"The sport of swimming is growing," he said. "It's a fantastic, growing sport."

Slotnick said 75 of the more than 200 swimmers on the Fountain Green team are of middle or high school age, and "a certain percentage" will participate in high school swimming.

He noted the 2016 Summer Olympics are coming up, with swimming as a major event, and interest in swimming typically increases after the summer games every four years.

"Throughout the summer it will be the talk of the town, and yet the county is looking at discontinuing it, and that's what's so sad," Slotnick said.

Shine through swimming

Swimming advocates say swimming gives high school student-athletes who might not excel at sports such as football or lacrosse a chance to shine on a high school team and possibly earn college scholarships. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 12,428 women and 9,715 participated in intercollegiate swimming across the organization's three divisions in the 2014-15 season.

"I owe a lot to swimming in high school, that I was able to go to college and get a scholarship," said Meredith Eyler, head coach of Bel Air High School's varsity swim team.

Eyler, a 1998 graduate of Bel Air, swam for her high school and was named an All-American as a member of the swim team at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

She coached 38 boys and girls on the Bel Air varsity team this year and said she would hate for those students to miss out on the same opportunities she had.

Eyler said the Harford swimming community is "a big community, but we're very small knit at the same time."

She said Harford teams were competing at the county level when she was in school, and they are now competing, and winning, at the state level.

"There's just a lot of success in this county, and you're going to take that away from a lot of kids," Eyler said.

One recent standout swimmer is Megan Cowan, 18, who graduated from C. Milton Wright High this year.

Cowan, who got her start at 6 years old on the Fountain Green swim team, won six individual state titles during her three years with the Mustangs. Her team also won the state championship in the winter of 2014.

She will attend Towson University in the fall on a partial scholarship and expects to be on the swim team.

"It was definitely a big part of my high school career," Cowan said.

She said she has become close friends with her CMW teammates, as well as swimmers from competing schools.

"I absolutely love them, and I wouldn't have been able to make that bond with them without swimming," Cowan said.

Her mother, Jennifer, said the swim team helped Megan, who came to CMW as a freshman from Saint Margaret School in Bel Air, feel like part of the high school community and have successes that she could not find in other sports.

"It's that chance for the underdogs, the kids that aren't the athletically gifted kids," Jennifer Cowan said. "They get to be part of a team and have those relationships."

Megan Cowan said swimmers use about every muscle in their bodies, and the sport "really builds your endurance."

Cowan said one teammate, who will be a junior next year, also runs track in the spring.

"He said that swimming builds up his endurance, and he's ready to go and run after it's over," she said.

Mustang swimming has become a family affair for the Cowans – Megan's younger sister and cousin plan to remain on the team, and her younger brother plans to join the team next year.

"I can't see them doing anything else in the winter," Megan said. "There's nothing they would rather do than swim."

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