WHEN the School District of Philadelphia announced plans to shutter 24 underused school buildings, the prospect of violent fights between students of merging schools loomed large among the many crosses that the district had to bear - including a $304 million budget shortfall which at one point led Superintendent William Hite to threaten a cut to sports, art and music.

It's great when dire predictions not only don't come true, but get turned on their ear. Martin Luther King High and Germantown High were two former rivals who weathered decades of bad blood, and their merger produced great anxiety. But the newly constituted football team has turned anxiety into triumph with important lessons for all.

According to an account in yesterday's Daily News, the combined Germantown-King Cougars have turned around a bad losing record to win their first Public League championship (AAA classification) - and the support of fellow students. In the process, they've proved the power of teamwork, and the power of things not learned in the classroom.

Let that be a lesson to the budget cutters and others who debate education and its reform. Not all learning happens in the classroom. Sports teach lessons about teamwork, perseverance and values.

Another important lesson: We too often shortchange young people for not having the abilities or potential to rise above tough situations. The students at Germantown and King show us the folly of that shortchanging.

Still another valuable lesson in this story is the power of community: Clergy have posted themselves at the school to welcome students in the morning, and parents have volunteered to answer phones in the office, all of which give kids a sense that they are part of the community.

Philadelphia is not the only district which has had to trim sports or "extras" budgets; in fact, some districts across the state have begun charging students who want to participate in sports or other activities. But, as we keep looking at reform, we should remember that the nonacademic subjects and perceived "luxuries" like art and music are critical parts of a fully rounded education.

It's ironic that the Germantown/King miracle occurs just as Temple University on Friday announced plans to cut seven sports from its offerings - including rowing, baseball, softball and men's gymnastics - to cut costs and boost funding for the remaining sports. The cuts represent $3 million out of the $44 million athletic budget for Temple.

Again, Temple is not alone in struggling to keep its athletics program fiscally healthy.

But the tragedy here isn't about sports: It's about education. Our halls of learning, from elementary to higher ed, should be designed to provide basic education to prepare future workers, as well as values for future citizens who know the meaning of fair play and commitment to community. Sports can do that. So can music and art.

It's time to admit that we get what we pay for, and cutting nonacademic programs can inflict just as much educational harm as cuts to teachers or classrooms.