Schools loan doesn't solve problems of city's children

IHOPE nobody is doing cartwheels over the city's financial bailout of its schools. For all the angst of the last few months, money's the easy part of education. Stand outside school headquarters sometime and look straight across North Avenue. The block's a once-elegant lady who has had most of her teeth knocked out.

The city's children still live here. You could see them yesterday, the morning after City Hall kept teachers' paychecks from bouncing by approving the $42 million in temporary aid. The kids' mothers never let go of their hands as they walked to Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary School on 21st Street, in the very shadow of school headquarters.

They walked along streets of broken glass. They walked past unemployed men spending chilly hours on cement rowhouse steps, some of them waiting for drug deals. The schools embrace these kids for six hours at a time, but then these streets get them the rest of the day and night.

On Guilford and Lafayette and Calvert, the kids walked to school past one abandoned rowhouse after another. Looking across North Avenue from the broad plaza outside school headquarters, they could see a stretch of about 15 doorways. All but a handful of these former rowhomes and offices were boarded up. Others are wide open, burned out and blackened, and from the upper floors of school headquarters you can look directly into them and see through the great emptiness all the way down to City Hall.

There, on Wednesday morning, the thinkers at the Board of Estimates approved the schools' financial bailout and simultaneously began wrestling with dreary citywide budget prospects, with the possibility of hundreds of job layoffs, and with the shadow of reduced fire protection and trash collection.

In other words, with the easy stuff.

The tougher stuff is what happens in some of these city neighborhoods, in which the blight right outside school headquarters becomes a metaphor for the life of the city's children.

At the Board of Estimates meeting, City Council President Sheila Dixon hinted at it. Haves and have-nots, she kept saying. For the haves, downtown is booming. There's $2 billion in current construction, and another $1.3 billion in the pipeline, Mayor Martin O'Malley said, "compared with the '90s, when we never saw a crane." The waterfront neighborhoods, where housing prices have mushroomed, are increasingly populated by young people fleeing the boredom of suburbia.

But, elsewhere, the middle class -- black and white -- has spent the previous decades leaving for those suburbs. "Partly," said Dixon, "our own fault. The incompetence of our schools. And the problem didn't come from teachers in classrooms."

"What about the neighborhoods around the schools?" she was asked later. "Like North Avenue outside school headquarters?"

"Terrible," she said. The eyesore is familiar to all. "Why haven't we done something in our master plan about that? Why aren't we converting those neighborhood buildings into homes for young teachers? They're good structurally, but they're boarded up, and trash is all over the place, and this didn't happen overnight.

"You have to ask yourself," she said, "are schools really the center of our communities? If they are, why do we let our children come out of their schools and see this kind of thing right away?"

Standing a few feet away from Dixon, schools chief Bonnie Copeland agreed emphatically. She comes out of school headquarters every day and immediately sees the dreariness directly across North Avenue.

"Wouldn't it be perfect," she said, "to turn those buildings into housing for teachers? To arrange for low-interest loans and low down payments, and make the neighborhood into an education community, where young teachers are within walking distance of school headquarters? And they've got a support network right there? What's that phrase -- 'a community of thoughtful people.' Wouldn't that be nice?"

But we live in a community where thoughtless people have squandered the years. In the schools, they flooded North Avenue with bureaucrats who ran up the payroll but added nothing visible to the education of children. Last autumn, when Copeland took over, there were 700 people at North Avenue. Today, she said, there are 350. It may go lower.

It's a terrible thing to see people lose their jobs; but it's been terrible to see generations of kids have their future mortgaged. The bureaucrats ran up the bills to the point of financial catastrophe, while other departments -- police, fire, public works -- tighten their belts and do the best they can.

And these kids come out of their schools, where teachers offer a protective embrace for a few hours, and the streets and boarded-up buildings await them to take it all away.