Members of Loudoun County’s swimming community rallied in support of their sport Tuesday night at a special county School Board meeting convened to hear public input and propose possible areas for budget reductions to reconcile an expected $38 million shortfall in funding for the 2014-15 school budget.
Floated by School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger as a sport “vulnerable” to potential cuts because of low participation compared with other sports, swimming was ultimately not included in the more than $41.5 million and 250 jobs that made the potential cut list Tuesday night.
More than 40 swimmers, their parents and swim coaches spoke during the public hearing, which included the reading of a letter by 2012 Olympic gold medalist Matt McLean, an alumnus of the Potomac Falls swim team. Students and parents were alerted that swimming could be on the chopping block after Hornberger mentioned swimming in a comment on his Facebook page Monday morning regarding Tuesday’s hearing.
“In my opinion, those programs with higher cost and lower participation rates are probably more vulnerable,” Hornberger wrote on Facebook. “I suspect that golf and swimming may be among these programs, but don’t know without more information.”
That statement mobilized the swimming community into action.
“It was really disappointing to see swimming even considered by the School Board,” said Susan Schlemmer, an assistant coach at Dominion High School. “The students on our team pay the $100 athletic fee [introduced by the county in 2009], plus cover the cost of their uniforms and 90 percent of team’s travel costs. If they increased the fee, our families would pay it. Anything to keep our sport.”
A Change.org petition was started late Monday and had more than 1,300 supporters by the start of the meeting Tuesday.
“Am I surprised? No,” Hornberger said. “Athletics is one of those things that always brings people out in droves.”
Hornberger’s Facebook comment was made in response to a commenter who asked whether freshman sports, swimming and junior varsity lacrosse were part of the potential cuts.
Swimming and golf were rumored to be under consideration because of questions asked by Hornberger on March 28 about the cost to maintain the sports as a school-sponsored activity.
“I asked about the cost of swimming because it’s an off-site sport, and our schools don’t have their own facilities like other sports,” Hornberger said. “I didn’t have the answer to that question before tonight, and seeing that swimming covers 44 percent of their budget, it probably doesn’t make sense to cut it.”
Cutting swimming would have saved the county $74,000.
Included on the tentative cut list are the elimination of freshman sports ($260,000) and 14 assistant athletic director positions ($1,307,500), along with 33 additional items that include removing middle school deans, eliminating summer school and a substantial reduction to the student activity transportation budget, which includes buses to off-site practices (golf and swimming) and sports games, meets and matches.
Athletic programs aren’t “the cost center that is driving the deficit,” said School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian District). “ There are other places to look first. This should be one of the last places we should consider cutting.”
Assistant athletic directors were added in 2002, when the county added varsity and junior varsity lacrosse to a slate of 40 freshman, junior varsity and varsity sports that served nearly 10,000 students last year.
Freshman sports were almost eliminated last year during budget reconciliation, but were saved by a 5 to 4 vote.
“The state tells us athletics are not part of your core purpose,” Hornberger said. “It’s not part of [Standards of Quality]; we get no state aid, nothing for that. It’s completely local. There is no money for athletics” from the state.
School Board members are acting under the assumption that the equalized property tax rate will be set at $1.155 per $100 of assessed value, a $0.05 reduction in the current rate, after a straw poll by supervisors last month. That difference in funding would result in the $38 million gap between the $949 million budget adopted in February and actual funding for the 2014-15 school year.
“Tonight was just step one in what is going to be a really painful process,” Hornberger said. “We face $38 million in cuts. That has to come from somewhere.”