BROOKSVILLE — For around a dozen years, Hernando County kindergarteners have been swimming during the school day, and taxpayers have been helping to foot the bill.
Costly frill or lifesaver?
At a 1 p.m. workshop today, the School Board will consider ending a collaboration with the YMCA of the Suncoast to teach swimming basics to its youngest students.
While the YMCA is willing to contribute the entire $233,400 value of the five-lesson program, superintendent Wayne Alexander says the district might not be able to afford the lost classroom time and the $18,000 a year spent on bus trips and substitute teachers.
"I see it as an area that we need to look at in terms of cost savings," Alexander said. "And it's very valuable (teaching) time lost. I have to believe what teachers tell me."
But the school district is mistaken if it sees the program as mere swimming lessons, said YMCA vice president Sue Ball.
"The purpose of the program is to teach children to be safe around water," she said. "It's about if you fall in or a friend falls in, how to help them safely. It's a water safety class."
And over the years, Ball said, she's gotten letters from shaken families who said those classes averted a tragedy.
Last year, the district sent 1,167 students to the YMCA pool, according to district records. At some schools like Chocachatti Elementary, which had a 12 percent participation rate, families could opt out if their children had already received swimming lessons. But eight schools sent between 75 percent and 100 percent of their students.
A district survey of teachers showed mixed results, with some supporting the program and others saying it was disruptive or ineffective.
If the School Board dropped the program, the YMCA would continue to offer families a voucher for free lessons. But that would almost certainly mean fewer children would attend, Ball said.
"Is it as good as the school transporting them here?" she added. "No, because there are some children who don't have transportation. We aren't going to touch every child."
Hernando isn't the only school district to support such classes. Last year, 130 elementary schools in Broward County sent more than 26,000 students on a program funded by the schools as well as county and private sources.
But in a cash-strapped year, some Hernando board members are feeling pressure to eliminate costs in order to balance the $170-million operating budget and increase teacher salaries.
"It has to be a high priority, but at what point do we replace the parents?" said John Sweeney, referring to the water safety lessons. "I do believe in paying for the teachers first."
"I think it's the parents' responsibility," said board chairwoman Sandra Nicholson. "Are we going to start buying child safety seats, booster seats? I think the parents need to step up to the plate. There's no reason they can't carpool."
But for board member Dianne Bonfield, the district's participation in the program is essential.
"Some children never have the opportunity to get in the water with a trained instructor," she added. "The $18,000 couldn't be spent in a better way. I'll definitely be bringing up the safety issue."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.