SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - The Board of Education (BOE) hosted a community forum to discuss capital plans and Columbia High School (CHS) renovations on Thursday evening in the CHS library. The discussion focused on the decision of whether to build a swimming pool addition at CHS. The existing pool is in a state of disrepair and it also no longer conforms to requirements for use in interscholastic competition, which makes repairing it unreasonable.
The session, which included members of the South Orange Board of Trustees, the Maplewood Township Committee and the general public, hinged on the issue of the expense of a new pool versus the benefits of having one.
Building a new pool would cost taxpayers approximately $8.1 million, in addition to the $5.9 million it will cost to repurpose the existing pool area into classrooms, which are needed to accommodate the growing student population.
Should the district decide not to build a pool, it would mean eliminating swimming from the physical education program as well as creating challenges for the school’s swim teams, which would have to rent pool time elsewhere and travel by bus to every practice and meet.
Resident Sue Goodman presented information regarding the potential revenue the district could recoup from having a pool. Based on her research, nearby pools are in high demand for lessons and swim team usage. She estimates that after expenses, a pool could generate a positive cash flow of approximately $96,000 annually.
She also expressed that swimming is a life skill that all should possess, and that roughly 30% of incoming freshmen cannot swim. A pool would serve those students as well as the swim team and the community.
South Orange Trustee Steven Schnall said that the township is looking into upgrading its recreation facilities and has talked about the possibility of an indoor pool being a part of that plan. However, the talks on that subject are only in preliminary stages.
Maplewood Committeeperson Kathleen Leventhal asked the BOE what the increased cost to the average homeowner would be if the new pool is built. Cheryl Schneider estimated that the incremental cost is difficult to predict, but would probably cost the average household $20 more each year for 30 years, the life of the bond.
Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca asked people to think about the impact the decision will have on parents’ decisions about keeping their children in our public schools.
“If we have less than superior facilities, then that factors into their decision to walk,“ DeLuca said. “People don’t like to pay taxes, but if people think their kids are not getting value out of their education, that is even worse.”
Resident Ed Cerny said, “A pool that people can swim in year-round is a pretty critical piece of municipal infrastructure, and it’s almost a bit of a strange discussion for this to be at a Board of Education meeting, because in a lot of towns, the pool does not have to be at a school, but that’s what we’ve got.” He is an advocate in favor of a new pool.
David Cutler, current co-captain of the CHS swim team, told the Board that this year’s team must practice in Union four days each week from 8:30 to10 p.m., and the additional travel time to and from practice impacts study time and the ability to seek out teachers for help after school.
“Every year, we are going to see a decline in the number of students who join the swim team if it’s at an offsite pool,” Cutler said. “Last year we had two freshman boys come out for the team, and we are losing eight seniors to graduation. There will only be seven or eight boys on the team next year if we can’t recruit any freshmen this year.”
High school freshman and competitive swimmer Brad Therol told the board that he decided to go to school elsewhere because of the lack of adequate swimming facilities at CHS.
Roy Greenman spoke as a representative of the CHS Athletic Hall of Fame committee, who are unanimous in feeling a new pool should be built and that the swim program would be jeopardized if it is not.
South Orange resident Marion Cutler raised the issue of money.
“We can’t afford this. We are looking at, based on your projections, a $17 million shortfall in four years,” Cutler said. “It is disrespectful to say ‘Oh, it’s only $20 more.’ It’s a lot of money and we as a district cannot afford this.” She suggested that the pool should be a municipal issue, not the BOE’s.
The financial concerns were echoed by resident Sabina Hack, who has four children who swim competitively, but feels that using limited resources to fund a pool “will result in the elimination of vital educational programs.” She said it would be foolish to spend so much on a resource used by so few. She also suggested that swim team members could be given physical education credit for participation and could use the time during the day that would normally be spent at gym class on academic work.
Residents Michael Healy, Theresa Burns, Risa Olinsky and swim coach Maggie Singler spoke in favor of the pool.
Walter Fields said the school’s other athletic facilities that are utilized by a larger number of students are inadequate and should be addressed instead of a pool. He points out that the fencing team and the girls’ basketball team cannot play in the CHS gymnasium because it is not large enough.
“Before you jump off this cliff, I sincerely hope you will take a comprehensive look at the total needs of the physical education department at Columbia High School,” Fields said.
BOE members offered comments to wrap up the forum:
Sandra Karriem: expressed that swimming is a life skill and that it should be taught in school; would like to see more research into revenue models of a pool; and wants to consider fund-raising effort to help fund the pool.
Wayne Eastman: said there is a very wide variety of things that could be done with $8 million and that he could not look taxpayers in the eyes and say this should be the priority for that much money.
Madhu Pai: said that in an ideal world, we would want a new pool, but questions how a fiscally strapped district can afford it when there are so many other educational priorities that must come first; she also called for private funding or a donation campaign to help pay for it.
David Giles: said he tends to support building the pool; said it would be a community draw and an important asset for the school; and that the pool could be used to teach swimming to younger children and would be a good investment for the community.
Jeffrey Bennet: said the projected shortfalls of tax revenue versus operating expenses must be considered; while the capital improvement budget and the operating budget are separate, taxpayers only care about the bottom line; higher taxes will limit the growth of other programs and he cannot support the pool.
Bill Gaudelli: said there is shame associated with not knowing how to swim, and that while budget concerns are real, a new pool will enhance the school and the community at large, making him lean toward support of the pool project.
Andrea Wren-Hardin: Although leaning toward supporting the pool, not entirely convinced; Sees the positives associated with it, but sees the budget concerns as well; Does not want other educational experiences to be compromised by fiscal constraints, but believes a pool would be well utilized.
Beth Daugherty: Said the budget deficit is real, but cost-saving measures are being explored; Does not want to raise taxes, but also sees revenue potential of the facility; Said what happens in the classroom is the most important thing, but sees a pool as something that sets CHS apart and could be a point of pride.
The slides presented at the forum are posted on the BOE website here: http://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/site/default.aspx?PageID=1. The BOE will most likely vote on this issue at their next meeting in November. Comments may be emailed to the BOE at firstname.lastname@example.org.