As budget discussions continue in the South Orange-Maplewood School District, one of the flash points is the proposed closing of the Columbia High School swimming pool.
At Monday night’s Board of Education budget workshop, current and former CHS Swim Team members came out in force to plead with the BOE to keep the pool open — despite the fact that Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker and Supt. Dr. John Ramos reminded audience members that the issue is not a part of the current budget.
And at least some of the board seemed to be opening the door to the possibility of keeping the pool open, at least in the short term.
Citing issues of equity and public safety, Baker said “I think there is a long-standing community wide need for a year-round swimming facility.” She acknowledged that in the past there had been long term discussions with the South Mountain YMCA and other community partners that “never really got off the ground.”
“It’s not just a school district need, it’s a community need,” said Baker.
Jeremy Dunston, Captain of the boys swim team, said that closing the pool “would only hinder any future success thus depleting the community’s ‘Cougar pride.'” Dunston started a petition to save the pool that has so far garnered 1,900 signatures.
“Taking away this pool is not only taking away our history, taking away our future, but you’re taking away opportunity,” said girls’ swim team member Rayna Hackett. “We are privileged to have a pool…why not use it.” Hackett, like other speakers, pointed to statistics that 70% of African Americans and 60% of Latinos cannot swim, making it a public safety issue in a district as racially diverse as SOMSD.
Swim team member Caroline Cerny said the pool could bring in revenue by renting it to local entities such as the South Mountain YMCA.
Board member Beth Daugherty reminded the audience that the district completed a multi-year analysis in 2013 that laid out various options to accommodate growing enrollment at CHS, and the BOE eventually voted for the option to renew CHS within the existing footprint, which called for converting the pool into classroom space.
She said the district should have been “ready to go” with a renewal plan at this point, but it was put on hold in part until CHS completes its Middle States Accreditation Process. That coupled with the Strategic Planning process, which will include discussions of how to improve and expand the districts’ facilities, means that the district “is not ready to move forward with any type of [pool] conversion now.”
Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider said the district had spent roughly $30,000 on short-term repairs to leaks in the pool but at some point major repairs that could cost “a couple of million dollars” would be necessary.
Meanwhile, the Finance, Facilities and Technology (FFT) committee of the Board is evaluating whether the pool can remain open for another year or more. “If we can keep the pool open we will keep the pool open,” said Schneider. “That is not a done deal at this point.”
Calling the 2013 decision to vote against the addition that would maintain the pool “quite crushing,” Daugherty said she would love to keep the pool.
Addressing the audience, she said, “We hear you loud and clear.”