County swim teams face uncertain future

Shenandoah County’s three public high schools are scrambling to determine the future of their varsity swim programs.

Central, Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg high schools may not practice or host home swim meets at Signal Knob Recreation Center in Strasburg this winter after an August visit to the facility by Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Raley, Director of Finance Cynthia Page and Supervisor of Maintenance Eugene “Gene” Dykes revealed concerns about the facility’s safety.

Those concerns, Raley said in a phone interview Monday afternoon, included dirt in the bottom of the pool, rust along the wall where it meets the pool and insulation hanging from the ceiling in multiple places. Raley added that there are concerns about the air quality inside the facility and the cleanliness of the locker room and bathroom areas. He also noted that a marked exit door would not open during the visit, which Raley said occurred around Aug. 20.

Raley said following the visit he met with recreation center owner Jerry King to discuss Raley’s concern with the indoor pool facility. Raley then presented photos to the Shenandoah County School Board at its meeting on Sept. 10, and said discussions were initiated during that meeting regarding options and alternatives the board can take when it ultimately decides on the future of the county’s high school swim programs at its next meeting on Oct. 8.

“Right now I’ve made my recommendation that we do not swim at that facility,” Raley said.

Raley’s recommendation has left coaches and athletic directors scrambling to find an alternative in order to keep the high school swimming programs afloat.

Coaches and athletic directors have inquired about facilities outside the county where they could hold practice, and Raley said the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in Harrisonburg and Bridgewater College are two potential sites. Strasburg athletic director Matt Hiserman added that he and Rams swim coach Ina Rae Crisman have inquired about facilities as far north as Shepherd University in West Virginia and have looked into facilities in Front Royal and Stephens City.

However, busing swimmers out of Shenandoah County for practice brings with it an increased financial concern.

Steve Shaffer, the head swim coach at Central and the president of the Shenandoah County Swim League, said Monday that county schools are facing a reduced enrollment of about 110 to 120 students this  year, which has resulted in a cut of as much as $900,000 from the schools’ state funding.

Shaffer said the school board has voted to cut swim practice from four days a week to three this winter in an effort to reduce costs, which would make rental for an out-of-county pool facility about the same as the $8,000 the schools paid to use the pool at Signal Knob Recreation Center, although he said the school board has informed him that busing swimmers to a location such as Harrisonburg could result in as much as $10,000 in added travel expenses.

Shaffer estimated the total cost of operation for all three varsity swimming programs in the county – which includes about 69 athletes county-wide – reached about $34,000 last year.

Since 2008, the Shenandoah County Swim League has contributed $6,000 annually to help fund the cost of running the high school programs, Shaffer said, and he added the league voted unanimously last week to increase that contribution to $16,000 this year to help offset the added expense. Shaffer said he plans to send a letter to the school board soon to propose the added contribution.

“We’ve been raising it for quite some time,” Shaffer said of the money. “We have the majority of it, actually, already in a fund earmarked for high school swimming and community development, pool development. We knew that somewhere down the road we were gonna need at least a little bit of initial money to begin the investigation of a pool, an indoor pool.”

Shaffer, Crisman and Stonewall Jackson swim coach Diana Knauff held an informational meeting for parents and student athletes Monday evening at Central High School to relay information and invite feedback, and the meeting drew a variety of responses from those in attendance.

Some parents questioned why the state health department hasn’t cracked down on the recreation center if conditions are as poor as Raley determined they were, to which Crisman replied that it was her understanding that health department officials did an inspection recently and found the water quality in the pool to be up to standard and found no signs of mold around the pool area or in the bathrooms.

One parent also questioned why members of the swimming program didn’t act sooner on the poor conditions of the facility, saying that the insulation hanging from the walls has been a problem since the late 1990s.

Shaffer, who founded the Shenandoah County Swim League 23 years ago, acknowledged prior to the meeting that the Signal Knob Recreation Center has been experiencing a decline in its condition for some time.

“It’s not a complete surprise,” Shaffer said of Raley’s findings. “What is a surprise is the fact that basically we get 30 days notice to come up with a solution.”

Several attendees of the meeting also brought up a rumor that Clarke County High School, which has also been using the pool at Signal Knob Recreation Center for its swim team, is still using the facility again this winter. Crisman confirmed that her most recent email interaction with Clarke County’s swim coach revealed the school was indeed still planning to use the pool for the upcoming season.

The same parent who questioned the swim program’s lack of quicker action also said the “surest avenue” the schools can take in salvaging the upcoming winter swim season is to convince Raley that the recreation center’s pool is suitable for one more year, adding that he isn’t afraid to let his child swim at the facility. “I am,” replied another parent.

Shaffer said the health department’s findings, as well as the apparent fact that Clarke County is still using the recreation center’s facility, came about after his last meeting with Raley, and Shaffer said those recent developments are “something we are going to look into.”

Shaffer said another possibility could be for volunteers to spend a few days fixing the issues at the recreation center – a concept both he and Crisman feel King would be inclined to allow. One parent asked how many in attendance at the meeting would be willing to volunteer time for such work, drawing a large number of hands.

Shaffer said long-term solutions for the swim programs could include a bubble, which could be placed over an existing outdoor pool in the county at the expense of around $100,000 or the construction of an indoor facility. He added that he hopes if the school board does vote to drop swimming in 2015 that it’s not a permanent death penalty for the program.

“I hope there would be an amendment to the motion to say that this would just kind of be a one-year suspension so that in one year, if there was a facility change, that it would automatically come back in,” Shaffer said. “And if I have that kind of support then that would only help the community with the timeframe and to get a facility in the ground.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com