Courtside at the crisis in Baltimore's public school system

Michael Olesker

THE VOICE ON the radio said the temperature was 38 degrees. The shadows were falling on East 20th Street, directly behind the Baltimore school headquarters on North Avenue, and these kids in the neighborhood schoolyard were defying every lurking pneumococcus in the frigid, fading daylight.

The kids were playing pickup basketball. Inside school headquarters, the great thinkers of the city school system were trying to figure out the misplacement of millions of dollars allegedly used to educate these kids. Good luck to them, and to all those grownups who have joined in the search for the money. They'd better bring bloodhounds.

Outside, in the piercing cold, some of the kids wore sweat shirts and knit caps as they practiced jump shots. Others wore T-shirts. Inside school headquarters, the great thinkers were clothed in their embarrassment, as these millions of dollars disappeared over years and years while nobody capable of doing simple arithmetic took particular notice.

"You know about this money?" I asked a couple of the kids.

"The school money?" asked Chucky Rhone, 13. He dribbled a red-white-and-blue basketball and gestured toward the huge school headquarters building across the street.

"Shoot the ball, man," a couple of voices under the basket shouted his way.

"Yeah," said Chucky, "I know about it."

"What do you know?"

"That lady," he said. "She lost $9 million, what's her name?"

""Who'd she give it to, a principal?" asked Andre Chase, 12.

"They gave her $9 million, and she lost it?" said Charmanique Harvey, 14.

"Not $9 million," they were told now. "It's more like $58 million."

Actually, there's the $58 million public school cash-flow shortfall, plus the $58 million deficit, but let's stick with the single $58 million figure to keep it simple for the moment, since even the adults are having trouble understanding this.

"Fifty-eight million," Chucky Rhone said now. "Dag."

"I ain't never had that much," said Eshawn Lawrence, 10.

"Come on," came a couple of voices again. "Shoot the ball, man."

They are out there every day. It is part of the ritual of any big city in America, kids fleeing schools at day's end and hitting the basketball courts until the sun disappears behind buildings and sends everyone home. The classic reasoning for the games, beyond sheer physical exhilaration, is: Basketball is seen as the ticket out of poverty. On East 20th Street, in the shadow of school headquarters, are long-abandoned rowhouses, some burned out, others with windows shattered, and wads of trash blowing about.

But there's a flip side to this thinking, an argument that says basketball is a cruel dream and that millions of youngsters waste precious hours shooting baskets when they could be learning the rudiments of some future, nonathletic profession, where the odds aren't so long.

"How come you're out here in this cold?" they were asked now.

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