INSIDE THE sweltering Poly-Western auditorium Wednesday night, spectators fanned themselves with stray pieces of paper. It looked like a road company production of Inherit the Wind. Gathered on stage, candidates for president of the Baltimore City Council tried to cool themselves with bottled water. This was considered their first sign of brilliance, as all water fountains in the building were covered with plastic and bore printed signs: "Do Not Drink From This Fountain."
Sometimes, in the city of Baltimore, you have to get past the small outrages to talk about the big ones.
The fountains are off-limits because, as everybody knows, the water in the public schools may be full of lead. The auditorium was sweltering (and mostly empty) because, in the middle of August, who would think of air conditioning at a gathering of residents who leave their homes to express interest in a citywide election?
So much for the little annoyances.
Among the roughly 100 souls gathered at Poly-Western to hear Sheila Dixon, Catherine E. Pugh and Carl Stokes discuss their run for council president, there was Patrice Wallace. She is PTA president of Cross Country Elementary School, and early in the evening she asked a question that got her absolutely nowhere.
It was about the desperation of parents whose kids go to pretty decent elementary schools in the city and then, faced with middle school, discover that they have almost nowhere safe or academically satisfactory to turn.
To this, Council President Dixon muttered something about "partnerships" between the city and state, and "bringing communities together." Swell. Then Councilwoman Pugh, not precisely addressing the question, said, "We know 50 percent drop out of ninth grade." And former Councilman Stokes said, "There are 183 schools in the city. And maybe 28 of them are any good."
Thus, we stumble toward the continuing Achilles' heel of the city of Baltimore. Crime rates may drop. Waterfront neighborhoods may blossom. Young people may party across the downtown streets, bringing energy and good cheer to places once considered dangerous. But immovable patterns of living remain.
When it comes to schools, the pattern is indelible: Young adults, bored with suburbia, move back into the city. Welcome, welcome. Then they marry. Then they have a child. Then, inevitably, they look for places back in suburbia, because they do not wish to mortgage their child's future and they have no faith at all in the public schools of the city. At Wednesday's debate, there was much concern expressed about schools. But, in the League of Women Voters format, candidates were given one- or two-minute blocks of time. What's the rush? Why not toss a question and let the candidates go at each other at length, face to face, give and take, until actual ideas emerge, instead of isolated laundry lists of cliches?
Take schools, for instance.
At evening's end, after 90 minutes of candidates declaring, "I have some ideas, but I see my time is up," and spectators gasping for any stray breezes until they began to straggle out, here was Wallace of Cross Country Elementary School. She was asked, "Did you hear anything that gave you hope tonight?"
She shook her head. "I heard Stokes say he'd give more money to the schools," she said. "But that's a no-brainer. At Cross Country Elementary, the school's capacity is supposed to be 597 children. But, a year ago, we had 860 children. Last year, because we yelled a lot, we got it dropped to about 700 children."
"I go to school board meetings on North Avenue, and it's appalling what goes on. They wonder why we don't want to send children from Cross Country Elementary to Pimlico Middle School. They tell us, 'Why don't you go to Pimlico, it's only 50 percent filled?' And the answer is, 'Because two-thirds of the kids at Cross Country are performing at state levels, and only 30 percent of the Pimlico kids are.'"
By now, Wallace was no longer standing alone. Both Stokes and Pugh were listening to her, and nodding in agreement.
"Parents," Stokes said, "are smart enough to know their kids aren't learning much of anything in most of the city schools. And the school officials keep telling us what they're going to do. And it reaches a point where people don't want to hear it anymore. Stop telling people they're going to have great schools without telling them when."
Pugh said, "In Baltimore, we're our own worst enemy. You look at North Avenue and see all these people shuffling papers. What are they doing? Why don't we put those [administrators] back into schools, where they might do some good?"
Stokes nodded his head at the thought, and so did Patrice Wallace. North Avenue is the home office of the self-important. There's lead in the school drinking fountains, but a succession of superintendents get driven around by chauffeurs. Frantic parents, seeing no academic havens for children, pack their bags for suburbia. And then we hold debates in sweltering school auditoriums, where candidates are supposed to offer profound solutions in one-minute responses.
And wonder why the place is 90 percent empty.