Alonso had been invited to the school's arts night, so he started his questioning on that topic. The principal told him about the full-time art teacher, the two full-time and one part-time classroom music teachers, the instrumental music teacher, the band teacher. "My God," Alonso blurted out, "how many people do you have doing the arts in your school?"

"Seven."

Not that he didn't support arts education, but how was this an effective use of resources? The principal was complaining that she didn't have the money to hire teachers in all the basic middle school subjects.

Alonso pointed out that she was due to receive an $800,000 budget increase.

During a tour, Alonso saw dirty hallways, young children lined up in the hall with no teacher, girls pushing each other into the bathroom on their way to lunch. He learned that the eighth-grade classes were on "lockdown" - the teachers were going to them rather than students switching classes - because of chronic bad behavior.

At last, in a science room, he saw the kind of instruction he sought, with children excitedly discussing the Big Bang theory. But these were gifted children, segregated from the rest of their peers.

Suddenly, sirens went off. A student had pulled the fire alarm, and the building had to be evacuated.

No more excuses
Excuses. Everywhere Alonso went, he heard excuses for why students weren't achieving. "It's North Avenue's fault. It's the parents' fault. It's the children's fault," he said at a school board meeting in March, characteristically hunched over a microphone. "And the one consistent thing since I came into Baltimore City ... is that far too much, what I hear is that it is somebody's fault."

Some of it was from principals, blaming the bureaucracy for being slow, incompetent, cheap.

As a special education teacher in Newark, N.J., Alonso saw what a talented principal could do with the power to take matters into her own hands. As a Ph.D candidate at Harvard University, Alonso concluded that successful school districts allow principals to make decisions based on local needs.

Now, it was time to put those observations to use.

To begin eradicating the culture of excuses, Alonso took a radical step. We'll give you the money to run your schools, he told principals. You have to decide what to do with it and be accountable for the results.

Baltimore schools had tried decentralizing before, most recently in the 1990s. Alonso says it failed because the central office neglected its duty to support principals and hold them accountable.

Executing his plan meant moving huge amounts of people and money out of North Avenue and into the schools. Money was provided based on the number and type of students at each school, rather than the programs that existed there.

At Holabird Elementary, a tiny east-side school near the Baltimore County line, the redistribution required Principal Lindsay Krey to cut six positions, a third of her staff. The school had improved during Krey's first year as principal, and with the reductions she worried that progress would stall.

In May, Krey committed during an appearance on WYPR-FM's Maryland Morning to enroll another 50 children in the school of 160, to make up for the money she was losing. Back at Holabird, employees wondered how they could possibly deliver. "I was like, 'Well, it came out of my mouth, so here we go,'" Krey said later in an interview. "It really lit a fire under us."

All summer, she and her teachers, parents and students knocked on doors, talking up Holabird to families who were not used to being courted. Some were sneaking their kids into county schools. Others were choosing magnet and private schools. After the visits, more of them chose Holabird, where enrollment surpassed 220.

That was Alonso's intent. "I challenged them, as in, 'You have a good thing going. People want good schools. If they know you have a good school, you won't have to worry,'" he said. "They did exactly what I wanted. They took it seriously."

In the fall, Krey got her award: a budget increase.

Some principals, though, found their new responsibilities overwhelming. They were now in charge of figuring out how many teachers they could afford to hire and how many books they could afford to order. While overseeing instruction and managing the building, "you're trying to figure out how much toilet tissue to buy," said Phoebe Shorter, who retired last summer as principal of Franklin Square Elementary.