Clay Street School: It's Not Just Money


Strictly from an education standpoint, the County Council did the right thing last month when it cut money to give Annapolis' troubled Clay Street neighborhood its own school.

Kids are spilling out of the classroom in Pasadena, in West County, on the Broadneck peninsula. Just about the only area not suffering from overcrowding is Annapolis. The schools there are operating under capacity.

The money that had been earmarked to reopen Adams Park Elementary could be better used in other ways as well. Some of our schools look as if they had been built before the Civil War.

Complaints about leaky roofs, crumbling ceilings and a lack of air conditioning inundate school officials, who can afford to make only a handful of repairs every year.

State funding, which used to pay the bulk of the cost of new schools, additions, renovations and repairs, has all but dried up. Local revenues are scarce because of Anne Arundel's property tax cap, and the county has reached the limit it can borrow to finance school construction projects.

So it's not hard to see why people in communities with overcrowded or old schools might feel they have a stronger claim on those 168,000 precious dollars than Clay Street. Strictly from a standpoint of dollars and cents and student population figures, reopening Adams Park Elementary makes little sense.

The trouble is, the council -- which is responsible for all county problems -- shouldn't have been looking at the Adams Park project strictly, or even mainly, in terms of educational needs. It .. should have been looking at the bigger picture.

Clay Street residents have not spent three years begging for a school because their children are suffering at the four elementaries to which they now are bused. Clay Street residents want -- they need -- a school because a school is the key to saving their community.

Once a thriving black district, Clay Street may be the most troubled neighborhood in the county. It is definitely the poorest neighborhood in Annapolis. Unemployment rates, especially among black men, skyrocket off the charts. High-school dropout rates are staggering. Drugs are routinely sold on the street corners. Crime frightens citizens badly enough that they're afraid to let their kids outside to play.

Clay Street's new council representative, Republican William C. Mulford II, says he voted against Adams Park Elementary because he feels it's more important to relieve overcrowding in other areas of the county. Well, Clay Street residents will tell him they'd trade their problems for school overcrowding any day.

The neighborhood has been sliding downhill ever since the 1960s, when the government came in and closed the Adams Park school as part of countywide desegregation and cleaned out the business district with promises of urban renewal that never materialized. The community sits literally within the shadow of the State House and the Arundel Center, and yet the council's recent vote marks the latest in 30 years of neglect by elected leaders at all levels of government -- city, county and state.

The one thing Clay Street has always had going for it is a stable, determined group of homeowners who cherish memories of what their neighborhood used to be. They have never given up hope of seeing it that way again. Lacking money and influence, these people have worked themselves to the bone trying to take back their own streets. They haven't asked for handouts, and they haven't turned to elected leaders with vague pleas for help.

Three years ago, Clay Street residents got together and brainstormed ways to make the neighborhood safe, vital and proud again. Their effort finally is starting to pay off. This week, a police substation opens in the old Butterworth building at Clay and West Washington streets. The State Police have kicked in additional patrols, as well as mentoring and tutoring for residents and their children. The City Council has approved $2 million to renovate the Stanton Community Center.

Residents saw, however, that lasting change required a school, an institution they could rally around. Adams Park once was the pride of Clay Street, the hub of community activity. It could be again.

With a school within walking distance, parents once more could get involved in their children's education. This is a poor neighborhood; many families don't have cars. That fact never registered with the powers that be when they started busing Clay Street children 30 years ago.

Despite initial rebuffs, the residents kept fighting for the school until they convinced Superintendent Carol S. Parham and the school board that reopening Adams Park was a good idea. It took some doing, but then they convinced County Executive John G. Gary.

Now here they are, facing the prospect of having to fight this battle all over again next year.

Between now and then, council members should think about what they are trying to accomplish.

I'm sure every one of them will tell you they believe public resources should be directed toward those areas that need them most.

Other communities may have more children per classroom. But no community needs a school more than Clay Street. In no other community would a school make such a difference to the quality of life for all residents.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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