Friday, April 26, 1996
Fire's stench will dissipate; will system's?

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

School just doesn't smell right anymore to Sara Lucas. When she used to walk in the door, she would get a whiff of scents that made her feel good.

''It smelled,'' she says, ''like home.''

Now, her home reeks of pain and foreboding. ''It smells,'' she says, wrinkling up her nose, ''like a dentist's office.''

Sara is an 11th-grader at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Her school now smells of disinfectants, chemical cleansers and fresh paint. They were used to clean up the mess an arsonist made two Thursdays ago after setting fire to the school's auditorium.

Many things smell about that fire. The nut who did it. The fire- gutted auditorium. The $1 million it will cost for repairs.

Worst of all are the twin stenches of incompetence and indecision. Both odors come from Cincinnati Public Schools' careless disregard for the safety of its most precious commodity, its students.

On the night of the fire, school janitors left the doors open. They did this in a neighborhood - Over-the-Rhine - with one of the city's highest crime rates. They did this in a school with a recent history of break-ins. Two weeks ago, a prowler was found hiding in the set for the play, The Hobbit.

When the auditorium went up in smoke, no security guard was on duty. Budget cutbacks had reduced his hours.

After the fire, indecision still rages. The question is whether to spend $1 million in a money-strapped district to rebuild the auditorium of an 86-year-old building that's on the to-be-abandoned list. A new school, at this time, is out.

'Madwoman' deals with life

Hours before the blaze broke out, Sara's classmates were in that auditorium. They were rehearsing The Madwoman of Chaillot. Sara is the play's stage manager.

Madwoman is about a woman's seemingly crazy desire to hold onto life's beautiful things while the modern world rewards all that is ugly.

The play is set in Paris where oil has just been discovered. In a city where the powerless need help and the powerful refuse to give it, the greedheads figure they can ruin a good thing and turn the City of Lights into Oil-burg.

The madwoman's faith foils their plans. She keeps terrorists from blowing up a government building and prevents the Eiffel Tower from being turned into an oil derrick.

Rehearsing for real life

On Wednesday, the cast had gathered to rehearse in a donated room three floors above the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati's stage in Over-the-Rhine. After bypassing the drunks littering the sidewalk and sidestepping their comments, the student actors climbed the theater's stairs and started drawing parallels between Madwoman and the maddening fire.

''I just can't believe someone would show such disrespect to our stage,'' says Nicole Wiesner, a senior at the school. ''That's hallowed ground. It's where we felt safe, free, inspired. And loved.''

The cast's Madwoman, senior Satya Harrington, finds that the moral of the story - in life as in the play - is ''out of pain, there's a greater gain.''

The students would like to believe that. Now it's up to school and community leaders to see if life can imitate art.

For the past few years, money matters have consumed Cincinnati Public Schools. The district has made significant progress in getting its financial act together. But this episode suggests the schools' budget beaters have developed tunnel vision. They have to stop crunching numbers and start opening their eyes.

What if that fire been set when the cast was on stage?

What would have happened if even one student had been hurt or killed because of a budget cutback, because no security guard was on hand, because the doors were left open?

There would have been hell to pay. And even that would not have been enough for the family involved.

What were people thinking, up and down the line, when these decisions were made? Money? Or students?

The welfare - and the safety - of the kids in the classroom needs to be a variable in any school equation. Leave them out and everybody loses.

If anything can be gained from the pain of this loss, it is this simple reminder:

It's time to get back onstage with the students.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.