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Everybody out of the pool: Williamsville considers closing more pools as usage wanes

There haven't been any backstrokes or butterfly strokes at Williamsville South High School in several years.

Only 20 yards long with four lanes and a 1 meter diving board, the pool was not regulation size and the swim teams often used the pool at Transit Middle School instead.

"They couldn't even really practice effectively," said Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff.

Rather than continue to pay nearly $30,000 annually to maintain the pool, the district closed it in 2016. The newly repurposed space now houses an ADA compliant fitness area used by all students, as well as occupational and physical therapy rooms. The move has been popular with students.

"We're getting kids who don't really play athletics here," said principal Keith Boardman. "But they know they can come here from 3 to 4:30 after school, go work out, then go home and it's easy for them."

Williamsville South High School filled in its pool and created a fitness center in the space in September 2016. Freshman James Robinson does bicep curls there after school. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

Pools are expensive for school districts to maintain, and Williamsville, the largest suburban school district in Erie County, is taking a fresh look at them.

The Williamsville district maintains pools at all four of its middle schools and its two other high schools, but is looking into repurposing two middle school pools due to years of low usage and high maintenance costs. A decision on whether or not to close pools at Mill Middle and Heim Middle schools is not expected for at least a year, however.

"We need to determine what the best use of the space is," said Martzloff. "It costs about $30,000 a year to maintain, heat, chemicals and things of that nature."

Under consideration is how the aging pool space could be repurposed and reconfigured to accommodate instructional programming for students.

Other than physical education classes, "There's not a lot of other uses for them," said Martzloff. "They're too small for real competitions." One possibility is to expand music space in those middle schools, he said.

Each pool costs the district $28,417 in annual maintenance costs, not including normal repairs, cost of water to fill the pool if major maintenance is needed during the summer and purchase of new equipment such as pool cleaning devices, said Thomas Maturski, Williamsville's assistant superintendent for finance.

Another significant cost is the dehumidification system. The unit at South needed replacement at the time the pool was closed, while Mill Middle and Heim Middle will require new units at a cost of $350,000 each in the next few years, Maturski said.

In addition, each year the district performs larger maintenance repairs on selected school pools, such as painting the ceiling of the Williamsville East High School pool this summer at an estimated cost of $26,900. This type of maintenance is normal due to the high humidity levels in pools, Maturski said.

Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards, said he was not aware of any other local school districts downsizing their pools, or making upgrades.

Major costs related to handicapped access may be discouraging school districts as they consider renovations, he said.

"The costs of lifts, or access ramps makes any renovation of the pool area much more expensive than in the past," Fraser said by email. "Also, the requirement that a lifeguard be present while instruction is taking place (that was enacted after a tragic drowning) is another cost that school districts are facing at budget times."

Most older school pools are just four lanes wide, while most others in high schools are six lanes. Larger pools built recently are eight lanes, such as at Maryvale High School. Clarence and Sweet Home high schools also have eight lanes, which are helpful for big meets, like sectionals.

Built in 1950, the Williamsville South pool had limited uses. It was used in only the fall and winter for practices by the boys and girls swim teams, and for 3½ weeks by freshmen in physical education classes.

In 2016, the district decided to close the pool, and it was filled in with a series of interlocking Styrofoam blocks. Now, the space is filled with adjustable weight systems, and cardio machines like bikes, treadmills and ellipticals.

In addition to the school's athletic teams, between 15 and 20 students typically use the new fitness area after school, Boardman said. Indoor physical education classes use Chromebooks to track their workouts. It's a much wiser use of the space, he said.

"The kids are in there learning how to log their information in and use that information to drive their workout," he said.

Freshman Nina Edwards does leg extensions in the fitness center at Williamsville South High School. The center was opened on the site of the school's former swimming pool. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

In the neighboring Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, there are five pools, including at the Kenmore East and West high schools, Franklin and Hoover middle schools and the former Kenmore middle school.

Even though the Kenmore building on Delaware Road is not used as a middle school anymore, its pool is used quite a bit, including for athletic and community programming, said Ken-Ton spokesman Patrick Fanelli. No changes are planned.

"I'm not sure if there would be anything to be gained by closing down pools since they are all located inside school buildings that are all in operation, and it would have a significant impact on the teams and organizations that use the pools as well as community ed aquatic classes," he said.

Martzloff, the Williamsville superintendent, said he's seen a slight decrease in interest in competitive swimming. And students are less interested in swimming at the middle school stage when they might be more self-conscious, he said.

"Quite frankly, probably the best thing would be if we had pools at all of our elementary schools where every elementary student learned to swim by the time they left elementary school," he said. "Swimming is one of those life skills we want every student to have."

News Staff Reporters Nancy Fischer and Barbara O'Brien contributed to this report.

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