Ensuring that Crawford Central School District students continue to have swimming as part of the curriculum and that the Meadville Area Recreational Complex not only survives, but thrives, is the goal of group calling itself the Community Advisory Team.
CAT representatives are working on a plan to lay out and provide to the public a comprehensive history of the MARC, including its intended purpose, an accounting of the facility’s current condition and visioning sessions to determine and build consensus around a direction for the facility’s future. The group’s hope is that the process leads to a plan that will supplement or change the MARC in such a way that it is aligned with current community needs and generates more and new revenue in an effort to address the school district’s interest in decreasing the amount of money it provides to the facility.
The school district’s financial contribution is one of the first hurdles the CAT faces as it believes the district must continue its current level of funding in order to allow time for the visioning process to work and for changes at the MARC to be put in place. CAT members are concerned that if the district completely cuts is contribution, as it intends to do by the start of next year, the MARC will have no choice but to reduce services and that doing so may lead the facility into a tailspin that may lead to its closure.
As things now stand, the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year, which starts Jan. 1, will mark the first time that the district will not be a major funding partner. In fact, until this year, the school district, which has used the complex to provide swimming lessons for all of the district’s fourth graders as well as swimming classes as part of the physical education curriculum for students in middle and high school, had provided approximately 25 percent of the operating revenue for the MARC, whose annual operating budget totals approximately $1 million.
From a high of $260,000 several years ago, the district’s contribution had fallen to just over $100,000 in 2013 and is expected to drop to zero in the district’s 2013-14 budget.
After several years of warning that funding may be eliminated, the district’s school board made the move in reaction to cuts in the district’s funding made at the state level.
CAT representatives have met with representatives of the school board and floated the idea that continuing current funding is what is needed at minimum to keep the MARC intact while new plans are worked out. CAT representatives said that they respect the school board’s decision to cut funding given the circumstances in place when the decision was made. However, with the CAT effort now moving forward, CAT members have asked that school board members reconsider their stance in light of the new circumstances.
“In a very positive, open way, this community group is trying to force a discussion that is long overdue,” school board President Jan VanTuil said Tuesday, noting that important questions — what the MARC should look like, what should its function be and who should it serve, for example — must be asked and answered.
“I think that the school district is part of the MARC picture, or certainly would like to continue to be part of that picture, but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome,” she added. “Although the district wants to be part of the discussion and part of the solution, we can’t solve the MARC’s financial crisis.”
As for keeping a funding stream in place while the discussion continues, “I wish that discussion about continuing support had taken place two years ago when we warned that this was coming,” VanTuil said.
“I welcome the process,” she continued. “I think it’s good for the future of the MARC. In fact, if the MARC is going to continue, it has to happen.” Once the questions have been answered and a direction found, she added, the time for the school district to start talking about a financial contribution will begin.
School board member Jon DeArment agreed. “I’m very optimistic,” he said. I think they’ve got a great group of people and I’ve already told them I’d offer any support. Hopefully there’s a solution that can be found.”
CAT representatives have also met with MARC’s executive committee, and they’ve signaled their willingness to participate.
“There has been a very encouraging response as we have talked to people,” CAT member Doug Lang said of initial discussions with the school and MARC boards. “Everybody has said they are a part of the solution.”
“It went extremely well,” CAT member Jack Lynch said. “This has to be a team effort.”
Reclaiming a lost history
From the CAT’s perspective, part of the reason why the MARC is in this situation lies in the slow but steady erosion of community understanding of the facility’s history and purpose.
CAT member Jim Duratz recalled that his late sister-in-law, Yolanda Barco, was intimately involved in establishing the MARC in 1976.
“Yolanda was in favor of the complex,” MARC Executive Director Mike Fisher agreed. “If Yolanda hadn’t led the charge from her seat on Meadville City Council, this might not have come together.”
More than 20 years later, Barco also played a key role in encouraging Vernon Township to become a participant along with the school district, the City of Meadville and West Mead Township in funding the complex, Fisher added.
The idea for the facility started because of a history of tragic child drownings in French Creek, which was at the time one of few places for children to escape the summer heat. Duratz remembers those days well. At the time he was a Pennsylvania State Police trooper. “The hardest thing was seeing a kid pulled out of that creek,” Duratz said. “People forget what it was like.”
In order to put an end to the needless deaths, the MARC was intended to provide a safe place for kids to swim at a facility all families could afford. It was specifically located, Duratz and Lang recall, next to the complex that now houses Meadville Area High School and Middle School because the school district put learn-to-swim requirements in the curriculum as a further effort to protect kids. “The school was very, very much a part of the whole structure,” Duratz said. “Back then everybody was very happy and excited about it.”
At that time, the community decided to make a significant investment for its children, Duratz and Lang point out, and since then millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in the facility.
In some respect, Duratz believes the MARC is something of a victim of its own success. Today, childhood drownings in the creek are a rarity, which is good. But that fact has also allowed the community to forget while the facility was erected in the first place.
Because of this loss of historical knowledge, Lang argues that he and many others in the community were slow to respond as the school board incrementally cut its budget for the MARC and then decided to remove it completely.
However, he points out that when it became clear that the budget cuts might endanger the facility’s future operation, the community rallied. A public input session called by the MARC drew more than 200 in early February.
While that meeting was encouraging, CAT members who have met with the MARC board and the school board have concluded that a third party is needed to move the MARC forward. They point out that neither board wants to see the MARC damaged but they have been unable to find a solution. CAT members also stress that it was the community that decided what the MARC should be, so it should be community that decides what happens next.
“It’s time to have this conversation,” Lang said. “We are asking for people’s thoughts, ideas and help. We don’t think this is a bridge too far. This is about making things better. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
How you can get involved
The Community Advisory Team is planning visioning sessions and other events through which the public can express its interests and get involved. Those events will be announced well in advance. For now, CAT members ask that you:
- Provide your name and contact information at the Meadville Area Recreational Complex if you are interested in helping out or simply wish to show support.
- Contact Crawford Central School Board members and/or attend their meetings to urge continued funding for the MARC while CAT works on a plan.
- Follow CAT news on Facebook at facebook.com/abettermeadville and on the web at abettermeadville.org.
- Get and proudly wear a free “I’m a Neighbor” pin after the locations where you can get them is announced soon.
Meadville Tribune reporters Pat Bywater and Mary Spicer contributed to this report.