District to close pool at MMS

Superintendent Joe Graves has decided to permanently close and remove the swimming pool at Mitchell Middle School, a move that could mean the end of a local swimming club that practices there.

Superintendent Joe Graves has decided to permanently close and remove the swimming pool at Mitchell Middle School, a move that could mean the end of a local swimming club that practices there.

"It's a financial decision," said Graves, who will further discuss the pool closure and other cuts during Monday's school board meeting.

The cuts will head off an anticipated budget shortfall in the 2010-2011 school year, he said. The school board can always overrule his decision if its members so choose, said Graves, "but this is my decision and it's a done deal as far as I'm concerned."

Graves said the pool's operation costs the district $88,000 a year, an amount that includes $20,718 donated by the city and the Mitchell Aquatic Club. Closing the pool will save the district an estimated $67,219 annually, he said.

The plan calls for replacing the pool with a new gymnastics practice area. The gymnastics team current- ly practices at the Knights of Columbus hall at 218 E. Second Ave.


The decision was a bombshell for the MAC, which uses the pool as its home base.

"Closing the pool means there won't be a swim team, in essence," said MAC coach Chuck Baechler.

MAC vice president Allan Miller said the group's board of directors met briefly Thursday evening to discuss Graves' decision and to issue a written statement of concern.

The statement notes that while the organization is not in a panic mode, it is "deeply concerned with the implications to the operations of our organization as well as to our community." The statement said the board will use the next few months to "identify possible solutions and remedies for this issue."

Baechler said the pool's closure will be a blow not only to his team but to community and school fitness programs at a time they are needed to combat a nationwide epidemic of obesity.

The budget cuts may be necessary, he said, "but I would have liked to see more process involved in reaching the decision. A lot of people who use the pool weren't consulted."

On balance, Baechler said the Mitchell School District has been supportive of the swim program over the years.

Baechler said MAC programs have translated to college scholarships for some swim team students. Two of three current seniors have accepted college offers and the third is still deciding. Two high school juniors in the program are academic all-Americans.


"That means they won't be able to swim in their senior year. It's tough to be recruited if you're not competing as seniors," he said, adding that nine club swimmers under 8 years old qualified for the state meet this year.

Middle school Principal Brad Berens said, "I guess I feel fortunate we've had the pool for 40 years -- MMS was built in 1969 -- and we've known for the last nine years we'd be closing the pool. This is the time."

But Baechler said keeping the middle school pool operational for several years "would maintain continuity for our program." Pulling the plug this summer means "the program would be killed and we'd be starting from scratch."

A potential plan to construct a community wellness center and pool at Dakota Wesleyan University could save the swim program, Baechler said, but that project may not happen for years.

DWU President Bob Duffett said the aging middle school pool "has been on its last legs and has had its last rites five times."

Duffett said Mitchell's Focus 2020 subcommittee on regional health care supports a proposal that would see the city, DWU, Avera Queen of Peace Hospital and the school district combine to build an area wellness center with a pool.

"What (Graves' decision) means is that we've got to get on this faster than anticipated," said Duffett.

Graves said federal stimulus funds won't be available next year and that declining student enrollment and an anticipated zero increase in education funding means the district may have to dip into reserves and use opt-out funds to maintain programs.


"The opt-out money will very likely have to be used for the 2010-11 school year, so we're holding that out as something we can use later to maintain our educational programming," he said.

The goal is to save generalfund operating dollars, said Graves, answering critics who wonder how the district can discard one program and still build a new school.

Construction funds to build the new Longfellow Elementary School are being paid from the district's capital outlay budget, which are not used for daily school operations, he explained.

Graves said he's being forced now to cut nonessential programs that can deliver a noticeable impact to the bottom line.

Those savings will be needed if or when the anticipated budget crunch becomes reality, he said.

"It's a tremendous program and there are 100 ways to argue for it, but the district can't afford to maintain it any more," he said.

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