Schools' swim season in peril

Meets to be canceled unless 6 pools are fixed by next week

December 02, 2005|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

With the swim season already begun and the start of competitive meets five days away, not one of Baltimore's high schools has an operable pool.

Around the city, students are nervously waiting to see whether the school system will fix their school pools in time to save the swim season. Yesterday, the city health department shut down the pool at the Polytechnic Institute/Western High School complex because of a lack of chlorine. It was the last of Baltimore's 15 high school indoor pools that could be used.

"It's just so frustrating that we can't get in and swim," said 17-year-old Katherine Shawler, a senior at Digital Harbor High, where the 38 students on the swim team have been running through the school hallways and squatting against the walls to condition their legs.

Athletic department chairmen have told the school system that they will be forced to cancel their swim season - involving teams from nine high schools - if they can't get six pools operating by next week.

Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer, said last night that the system should be able to open the pools in time. He said the health department inspected five school pools yesterday and found that minor work will be needed to get them running. He expects the same finding for the sixth pool, at Forest Park High, when it is checked within the next few days.

"We're looking fine," Letsinger said. "We've got some hard work to do before the buzzer, but we'll get there."

Even if the pools are usable by next week, some coaches said, they will be forced to push back the dates of their first swim meets. The teams were supposed to begin practicing when the season started Nov. 15.

"This is ridiculous," said Chris Vaccaro, the athletic director at Digital Harbor. "We need at least a week of swimming to be able to compete."

Vaccaro said some students on his team are skilled enough to get college scholarships for their swimming, and he fears that opportunity could be in jeopardy.

Gloria Greene, a physical education teacher at City College who schedules the Baltimore teams' swim meets, said it is "ludicrous" that the school system didn't start addressing the problems with the pools until after the swim season started.

"I've been calling everybody since September," she said.

Letsinger said the school system, which has overwhelming building needs, has been working hard on the pools for about the past week. He said the staff members who work on pools also work on boilers, and boiler work has been the focus in recent months.

"We made significant headway on the boiler issue, which will pay dividends over the winter," he said, adding that maintenance of pools is technical and complex. "We focused so heavily on boilers, we then turned our attention to the pools a little late in the season this year. ... We look forward to getting to an environment where things are more routine and efficient."

Letsinger said he expects pools to be operable by next week at Poly and Western (which have separate teams but share a pool), City College, Forest Park, Northwestern, Digital and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical high schools.

The other two other high schools with swim teams, Patterson and Paul Laurence Dunbar, have arranged to practice at community pools. The pools at both those schools have major structural problems.

David Lever, executive director of the state's Office of Public School Construction, said the city school system received emergency funding from the state last year to fix the pool at Patterson High School, but construction was held up because bids came in high.

Roger Wrenn, the athletic director at Patterson, said he is frustrated that his school pool can't be used for physical education, the only opportunity many students have to learn to swim. With city schools lacking so many things, he said, the pools are a rare asset.

"It's just a crying shame," Wrenn said. "Through neglect and a lack of maintenance, they've just let the pools go."

At Digital Harbor this week, parents of students on the swim team were feeling desperate, calling politicians, school system administrators, anyone they could think of.

"We would come to clean the pool," said Charlene Boicourt, whose son is on the swim team. "If we had to pay a monthly fee and this would help with the pools, most of the parents would do something like that. We just want this to happen."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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