Potential budget cuts worry Obama’s swimmers, coach

“I would cry if the swim team got cut,” says Danielle Lewis, a ninth grader on Pittsburgh Obama’s girls swim team. Yet that is exactly what could happen if Superintendent Linda Lane’s proposed budget changes go through.

As is well known, Pittsburgh Public Schools are suffering from budget problems. The district is currently $584 million in debt, and our deficit is hovering at around $55 million; according to The PittsburghPost Gazette, we are on track to declare bankruptcy in 2016. Linda Layne recently gave a speech informing the public of how she may attempt to address these problems.

This, of course, is not an easy problem to solve. It is therefore natural that Lane’s approach should be controversial. Whether the debt is reduced by making cuts or by raising taxes, or whether we ignore the problem and declare bankruptcy, there will be many people unhappy with the solution. There is no good solution, and someone is bound to lose out.

Yet as the entire purpose of a school district is to educate children, it can be argued that cutting programs that benefit the students of Pittsburgh are the most detrimental to the system. Included in the proposed cuts are many items that could have negative effects on the students and their educations, including increased class sizes, closed schools, and changes to special education programs that would encompass sending special education students to their home school rather than the schools that are prepared to teach them.

One particularly controversial measure that Lane proposed in her speech is cutbacks on sports. This includes middle school swimming, wrestling, and volleyball, as well as high school swimming, golf, and tennis.

According to Mark Rauterkus, the high school boys swimming and golf coach for Obama Academy, the school board is not always true to its word. “Dr. Lane speaks highly of teamwork. It’s a core principle that the district likes to value,” he says. “But teams are one of the first things they’re cutting in this new round.” High school sports teams are important for “a million reasons.” They teach good interpersonal skills, time management skills, and make students more attractive applicants to colleges and employers, according to Rauterkus.

At this point, it is difficult to say what will happen with the proposal, and one can only hope. It is possible that the proposed plan will not go through. It is possible that the sports teams will be picked up by some other organization, such as Citiparks. But it is also possible that our school district, in the name of budget, is about to remove a priceless enhancement to our school’s community and an invaluable contribution to its students.

But to be sure, running a sports program of any kind takes money, and funding for any given team at any given school can entail many, many purchases for many, many needs. This point is not lost on Coach Rauterkus.”Last year the swim team didn’t even get new suits. The only thing we spent was $200 on those purple latex caps. We still have the Schenley backstroke flags and Schenley lane lines,” he explains. ” Last year the district purchased new starting blocks and a new timing system. The scoreboard costs somewhere around $8,000 to $10,000. The starting blocks were probably around $2,000 each. Thats around $20,000 total for this hardware stuff. Being in the WPIAL, we have to have meets. And meets mean we have to have officials. That’s $200. A bus for one meet is $200 more. Last year the other big savings was that I coached both the boys and girls teams. That saved around $3,000. This year we have Mr. Boyce, which is good. We have to make sure we have good instruction and safety for all of our swimmers.”

Multiply these expenses by the number of PPS high schools, and then add in similar needs for each various sport, and the problem becomes clear. Where does the funding come from?

The Eagle Online wondered what Rauterkus would anticipate happening should the proposed plan go through. Is it possible that the teams would continue in some other way, not sponsored by the school district? For his part, he believes that it would perhaps be a blessing to have the school pools be run and operated through another agency such as Citiparks. “Then we could have water polo, triathlons, varsity teams that could compete at the highest level.”

But for the moment, he says that he hopes the proposed cuts will mean that more kids will get involved in swimming, and ” that kids will get involved in the discussions at every level.” He adds, “Not having a swim team is, I don’t know, bizarre.”

Mr.Rauterkus points to what athletics and more specifically, swimming, can do for young adults, and points to his own son, an Obama graduate, as an example. “Where Erik goes to college, at Swarthmore, 55% of the students were varsity athletes. Now he’s a swimmer at Swarthmore. He loves his coach, he has a lot of friends on the team. At Washington and Jefferson, 45% of the students were varsity athletes. Being on a sports team in college gives you a support group. If we want the students to be “Promise Ready,” we need kids who are good athletes. Because in college, you want to be fit, too. You learn time management. It makes you more attractive to possible employers or universities. It presents job opportunities. There are lifeguarding jobs, you can work at Summer Dreamers, there are college scholarships especially for swimmers. Lifeguarding can be the first rung on the ladder to becoming a doctor. You learn CPR and first aid. You can save someone’s life. High school sports is really a beautiful career advancement.”

In the next few weeks, the school board will hold meetings and public discussions will be held, as well.