Sunday, October 14, 2001

Rickety school just isn't sporting

        Leonard Carey poked his gray-bearded face into the principal's office, then the rest of his 6-foot-3-inch self followed. “I'm here for my swats,” he said. “I think you owe me about five.”

        He was just kidding.

        Swats are no longer dispensed in this office. And, in fact, plenty of other things have changed since Leonard — who now is called Toby — was a first-grader at Sands Elementary School in the West End. That was 50 years ago and the building wasn't new even then. The doors opened on George F. Sands School in 1912 — the year the Titanic sank, the year the Girl Scouts were founded, the year the Minsky brothers opened their burlesque theater.

        In other words, a long time ago.

An expensive bedpan

        Another West End landmark, Crosley Field, opened that same year and served as home to the Cincinnati Reds until 1970. But, naturally, you wouldn't want to have a baseball game in an outdated facility. So Riverfront Stadium was built. By then, we also had a football team, so the new facility was home to both sports.

        But, c'mon. Does anybody really expect professional athletes to put up with old lockers and peeling paint? Not to mention fake grass. It's demoralizing. Hard to attract new talent. Not to mention that the owners of the Reds and the Bengals were uneasy roommates.

        So, by gosh, we came up with the money for new facilities. Again. The $320-million baseball park, being built for Opening Day 2003. And the $450-million Paul Brown Stadium, “one of the more progressive football stadiums,” according to a local architect. “It looks just like a bedpan from the air,” observed a local pilot.

        Meanwhile, the building at 940 Poplar St. is still open for business. Sands Montessori, one of Cincinnati Public Schools' magnet locations, is the daytime home of 641 kids, ages 3-12.

        Toby wonders if he'll still recognize the place, so we poke around a little before reporting to the principal's office. Still-impressive terra cotta surrounds the front entrance, and the railing is painted a cheery red. Some old woodwork remains, along with marble stairs. Not to mention the historic charm of lead pipes, a leaky roof and drafty windows.

Age takes a toll

        “It's really old and not totally safe,” fifth-grader Jonathan Dantley explains. Some of the terra cotta fell off the building last year. Someone else offers that heating is, er, somewhat erratic. “It's about 190 degrees in my room in the winter.”

        Tilting his head, Toby offers, “It still smells the same,” an aroma something like eau de chalkboards or maybe essence of white paste.

        He doesn't like the idea of his old school being abandoned, but the cost to renovate would be $8.8 million. It is in deplorable shape. Despite the bright posters. Despite the bright faces. And, looking at those faces, I'm shamed by choices we've made with public money.

        Next year, what principal Gary Browning calls “the Sands family” will move from the predominantly black West End to the predominantly white Mount Washington. The Eastern Hills building on Corbley was the only one available.

        “We don't intend to lose a single family,” the principal says firmly, citing special transportation arrangements and plans to invest more than $1 million in the interior, a lot of money by education standards.

        And a drop in the bucket in the sports world.

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