Lack Of Swimming; Hole In District

The groundbreaking this morning of the new South Wilton High School (Expected completion: August 2010) was a bit history-making in that it will be the first public school building built in the city in the last thirty years that will not have an elaborate swimming facility as part of the design. Why? Let’s go back a bit.

In 1975, Beatrice Nussbaum, she of the wealthy shipping and coal mining family, passed away at the age of 69, leaving most of the family fortune in a trust, the funds of which were largely earmarked for the construction of new schools and educational facilities in the city. Public school officials were overjoyed to have such largesse fall unexpectedly right into their laps- then they were made aware of the will’s full stipulations.

In 1915, Blake Nussbaum, scion of the family, was one of the 1,198 passengers and crew who drowned in the tragic sinking of the RMS Lusitania. He was 17 years old.

This left a huge mark on the psyche of his younger sister (and only sibling), Beatrice, who then developed a lifelong fear of the water and everything associated with it. She became convinced throughout her entire life that Blake could have survived the ship’s torpedoing, had he just been given sufficient swimming instruction. To this end, she wanted to make sure that such a thing could never happen again. The fund’s monies could only be used if a comprehensive swimming program was started and maintained the public school system. The school district, constantly strapped for cash, had no choice but to accept the terms.

So, since 1976, every elementary, middle and high school built in the city limits has been constructed with a substantial natatorium facility and every single student has been required to graduate with at least six semesters of swimming instruction. In some ways, this has been a good thing- the city does well in state swim meets and has sent many a student to university swim programs across the country- but this means that there are also tens of millions of dollars sitting in trust that could be used for other facilities and other programs that have nothing whatsoever to do with swimming.

Since the 1970s, the school district has had attorneys ceaselessly running up against the wall, trying to figure out some way to unfreeze the funds, to no avail- until last year, when they finally found a judge willing to rule in favor of their broad interpretation of the vaguest language in the will. The board administering the trust is appealing like crazy, but the district apparently feels confident enough in their position that they put the ceremonial shovels into the dirt this morning. The school’s focus will be on technology and science, with $28 million of the total $42 million budget coming from the Blake Nussbaum Educational Construction Fund.

For their required swimming classes, students at South Wilton High will use the natatorium at Challenger Elementary four blocks away, which features a 75 by 50-foot, 195,200-gallon lap pool.
- RJ White

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