Courtside at the crisis in Baltimore's public school system

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.

"Because we couldn't play on snow days," said Andre Chase, "so we gotta catch up."

"And football season's over," said Christopher Jones, 14. They turned to watch Leon Wells, 14, dribble the ball between his legs on his way to a jump shot from the corner. Andre Chase wore a white T-shirt and slipped his bare, freezing arms inside it while he talked.

"I got on three shirts," said Chucky Rhone.

"What about this school situation?" the kids were asked.

They aren't supposed to know about such things, but maybe they do. They are children, granted a child's distance from such adult concerns, but the numbers are so staggering, and the anger of their teachers so palpable, that maybe it has reached their attention: the $58 million cash-flow problem, the $58 million deficit, the $42 million in state bailout money to match $16 million from the city and the Abell Foundation.

"My mother said she's worried," said Chucky Rhone. "She teaches over at Samuel Coleridge Elementary. She said she's worried teachers might be fired."

A long rebound came off the side rim and bounced near Chucky. School officials have infuriated teachers with talk of pay cuts. Chucky pumped up a jumper, but a stiff late-afternoon gust of wind drove it off course. Without pay cuts, say school officials, there might have to be 1,200 layoffs, sending reverberations through classrooms across town.

"What about a game?" somebody said.

Eshawn Lawrence, 10, nodded his head.

"He can't play," said Chucky Rhone.

"What you mean?" said Eshawn, looking hurt.

"He only got a right hand," said Chucky, laughing. "He can't go with his left hand."

"Oh," said Eshawn, smiling.

They live in a world where 10-year olds are supposed to have basketball skills with both hands. They also live in a world where the grown-ups in the big building across East 20th Street seem incapable of doing simple arithmetic. We can argue all we want about the benefits of study time vs. basketball practice. But at moments like this, with the schools trying to pull out of their latest catastrophe, and layoffs right and left, a dream career in basketball seems no more a long shot than a legitimate public school education.