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Blame game skips over victims of school fiasco


THE BLAMING started with Kevin A. Slayton, who came in from the cold on North Avenue yesterday morning wearing a bow tie and a take-no-prisoners attitude, and announced he would like six members of the Baltimore school board to be shot at dawn on Good Morning America. At the very least.

Slayton heads the Parent and Community Advisory Board, a group composed of those who have defied all history, all threats to their children's future and, to some minds, all logic to keep their kids enrolled in the city's public schools. This, during times of depressing test scores, of crowded classes, of outdated textbooks, to say nothing of the current crisis involving the $58 million school deficit and the $52 million cash-flow crisis and teachers who have decided that they are not going to take a pay cut for somebody else's unchecked idiocy.

But the blaming did not end with Slayton. He wanted to fire six school board members - the most senior members, who were around while North Avenue's finances were going to hell - as a declaration of someone finally being held personally, identifiably responsible.

"Dirty water in the drinking fountains," Slayton said, starting to tick off a whole roster of problems. "High dropout rates. And now these deficits. Who pays the price? Mostly it's children of modest means, children of color. It's going to be very difficult for the same people who put us into this situation to pull us out of it."

But the blaming does not stop there. At City Hall, Mayor Martin O'Malley has heard the talk of his administration getting so caught up with other concerns - crime, primarily - that the school financial troubles slipped past him. But while school board members met behind closed doors on North Avenue yesterday - heaven forbid that the public should have access to a meeting about its own schools - O'Malley met with reporters.

Partly, it was to formally announce an $8 million loan offered by the Abell Foundation to help bail out the schools. But partly, it was to fend off any looming criticism.

Six years ago, O'Malley recalled, when the city and state entered into a kind of joint partnership over Baltimore schools, the city "was removed from fiscal oversight," O'Malley said. "We hoped the state would oversee the school's finances," the mayor said. "That did not happen."

The words hung in the air for just a moment before someone asked if O'Malley was, in fact, trying to absolve City Hall of any blame in the current troubles.

"We all have a responsibility to hold up such a critical institution," he said. "That's why the city's stepping up now" - putting up $8 million to match the Abell Foundation's $8 million, and an advance of millions more that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said last night may be coming from the state.

But in case anybody missed the key political point, there were printed copies of the Maryland Education Code available, declaring in clear language: "The State Board of Education and State Superintendent of Schools shall review each annual report and comment on the progress made towards achieving both managerial and educational goals."

"There's nothing in the act," said Robert Embry, chairman of the Abell Foundation, "about the city reviewing the schools. In fact, it's disappointing that the city has been [criticized]. The mayor's stepping into the void. But it's certainly not his problem alone."

Embry has an intimacy with these matters. He has headed city and state school boards, and he has put his own children through the city system. He stood there yesterday, by the mayor's side, and lauded the "great success story" in the schools, the turnaround in test scores, the lower dropout rates, the higher graduation numbers.

But these are just some of the troubling ironies surrounding the schools.

On Friday, the morning after thousands of angry school teachers voted overwhelmingly to reject a proposed salary cut, the story was played atop Page 1 of this newspaper. Next to it: a headline reading, "Ritz harbor condos progress," and the story of a $155 million project to develop condos ranging from $600,000 to $3 million apiece on a stretch of Inner Harbor land at the foot of Federal Hill.

This followed, by a couple of days, the reopening of the Hippodrome Theatre, part of the vast west-side redevelopment. It followed, by a day, groundbreaking for the new Babe Ruth Museum at Camden Station, a sports museum set to open in 15 months out of the rubble of the city's historic railroad terminal.

On mornings such as this, the city can't seem to get out of its own way. We're putting up palaces for theatrical dramas but can't solve the real-life drama of educating our own children. We're building sports museums to hold onto our athletic history, but our schools are mortgaging the kids' futures. And we're building $3 million condos for people who will look somewhere else to educate their kids.

We tell ourselves we're on the brink of another municipal renaissance. But if our own children aren't part of it, then what's the point of it all?

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