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Opinion

How about more pool days, fewer candidates?

And so school is out and summer begins, and still most of the public swimming pools in the city of Baltimore are not open. Because of the government's money problems — and because, I suspect, so much private money is tied up this year in a crowded mayoral campaign and the Labor Day Grand Prix — we have swimming pools opening on a staggered schedule, with some not available to children in the poorest neighborhoods until July 9.

Can't we do better?

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Didn't we go over this last summer? Didn't we agree that we can't have the seasonal pools opening too late or closing too early, particularly where children have limited recreational opportunities and few sanctuaries from the wicked heat that inevitably comes to Baltimore's old concrete-and-brick neighborhoods?

In late April, when the Board of Estimates approved Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget (since approved by the City Council), a press release from City Hall said: "Tough but smart budget plan closes deficit, protects core services without raising taxes." It listed the budget's highlights, including the following:

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"Funds City swimming pools at Fiscal 2011 levels with increased security. At this funding level, a combination of park, walk-to, indoor and splash pools will be open from May 28 to September 5."

That sounded good — maybe too good.

If the funding level is the same as last year, and last year all city pools had to be closed Aug. 8 before corporate donors saved the day, then why should Baltimore families expect a different outcome this summer?

Well, if you look a little closer — specifically at the Department of Recreation and Parks schedule for aquatics — you'll find that "May 28 to September 5" is a stretch.

While the city's two big and beautiful outdoor pools, at Patterson and Druid Hill parks, opened May 28, that was only for weekends until June 18. Those pools do not open for daily use until this Saturday.

Four more park-based pools also do not open until Saturday; they are set to stay open daily through Labor Day.

But another set of pools, 13 neighborhood pools from Park Heights to O'Donnell Heights, do not open until July 9, and they're set to close Aug. 21. If you're stuck in a city neighborhood, with limited funds for transportation, these "walk-to" pools are valuable. But summer doesn't start there until after the Fourth of July.

OK. There it is. Global recession and foreclosures, loss of population and tax revenue, big pension bills coming due — the city has been through a tough time, and perhaps the children of Baltimore are lucky that some of these pools are kept open at all. Maybe they shouldn't beef about a limited schedule that city employees patched together, doing the best they can with the resources handed to them.

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But these public pools are for families that can't afford what many of the people reading this column can afford: a pool of your own, membership in a private club, a week at the ocean, or a car or van to take your kids there. The more active kids are, the healthier they are: more stimulated, more engaged, more socialized, less susceptible to the summer doldrums and to the learning loss that experts believe is a major contributor to the nation's educational achievement gap.

We can do better than this.

Why not cheap-lease the Patterson Park pool to Olympian Michael Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, and let them expand it into another for-profit aquatic center (with daily hours for public swimming) and use part of the proceeds to fund other city pools?

That's a long-term idea.

In the immediate term — I mean, like tomorrow — scrounging up funds for a few additional weeks for the walk-to pools, in particular, should not be a problem. T. Rowe Price, Legg Mason and an anonymous donor (later identified as Peter Angelos) stepped up last year to keep the pools open. The Baltimore Community Foundation collected donations.

There's more money around, but a couple of other high-profile endeavors are likely tying up cash flow this summer: sponsorship of the Grand Prix, and donations for the six Democratic candidates who have decided to challenge Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

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Democracy is great (hey, I'm all for it!), but political campaigns suck away millions that could go to much better causes. Maybe a couple of mayoral candidates — do we really need seven? — will fold tents this summer and encourage their donors to support municipal swimming pools instead. I'm sure their supporters will applaud their magnanimity.


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