Sunday, August 31, 2003

The Mighty Meatballs a lesson in school spending



Laura Pulfer

Although ordinarily I avoid cliches like the plague - they're old hat, as a friend reminds me - I can't think of a better way to describe the story of the Mighty Meatballs. Penny wise and pound foolish. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. Half-baked idea. They all fit like a glove.

Western Hills High School, part of Cincinnati's perennially needy public school system, has boarded up its swimming pool to provide practice space for the wrestling and cheerleading kids. Wouldn't an empty floor be cheaper and easier to come up with than a pool?

It's bad enough that this pool is used only in the summer. It's old - built more than 75 years ago - but it's in great shape and the filtration system was overhauled in 1996. For nearly 40 years, it has been home to the Cincinnati Recreation Commission's Mighty Meatballs swim team, as well as a training center for CPR, lifeguards and anybody of any age who wants to learn to swim.

Ginny Volle, whose kids have been on the team, snapped a photo at the end of the season. "The water was crystal clear," she says. "The sun was shining in the windows on those pale green tiles. It was beautiful."

Well, as another cliche goes, pretty is as pretty does.

The school board, which has announced intentions to make each and every school a "neighborhood learning center," was told at a meeting Aug. 11 that the 16-member wrestling team was tired of lugging their mats across the street to the stadium to practice.

Seems like good exercise to me. And, as we like to say at the cliche factory, nobody promised them a rose garden. When the ladders around the pool at West High were inoperative, instructor Lois Gribler told the kids to take a lemon and make lemonade, that it was really safer anyway to pull themselves out of the pool using upper body strength.

They learned to do that. Some of them also learned to be exceptional swimmers. One of Lois's students set a state record three years ago that stands today. And the pool, which is about half Olympic size, has been the training ground for hundreds of lifeguards all over the city. The Mighty Meatballs, named by the original team while sitting at the LaRosa's on Boudinot, come from several different schools. East side and west. The team has boys and girls of all ages, races, sizes.

Jake Varland, 16, who is developmentally disabled, couldn't play on regular Little League teams, but he was welcomed by the Mighty Meatballs. "Every kid gets to swim," says his mother, Patti Varland, who is among the parents who have been fighting to "Save the Mighty Meatballs" because "it just doesn't make sense not to use what we have."

Instead, CPS is poised to squander a valuable asset. One that involves the entire community.

"I think somebody made a decision to solve one problem and created another one," said school board member John Gilligan. "We're going to get it rectified. A strong presentation was made by the parents."

Funding $1 billion worth of new schools is not permission to automatically discard everything old. Especially if it still works. What if these parents had just shrugged their shoulders? And, as they say, it begs the question: Are we making the best of what we already have? The traditions? The talented teachers? The willing and energetic parents?

Waste not, want not.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.




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