With questions unanswered, Dunbar's direction in doubt

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

January 15, 2007|By MILTON KENT

For a guy who recently lost perhaps the highest-profile high school coaching job in the area, Eric Lee sounded remarkably upbeat. A bit perplexed, maybe, but positive, nonetheless.

Lee, who, until a week ago Friday, was at the helm of the Dunbar boys basketball machine, got bounced from the job unceremoniously by the school's principal, Roger Shaw.

Although Lee says he's still not certain what exactly led to his dismissal, he also says that he's not exactly sweating things out right now, either.

"I'll just relax and wait on the next opportunity. Hopefully, another will come," Lee said. "Sometimes, you just have to wait on your blessings."

For the record, Shaw, who declined to return phone calls to the school last week, has yet to specify why Lee, a Dunbar alumnus who played on the school's mythical national championship team in 1985, was fired.

All Shaw has said on the matter was what he told The Sun's Lem Satterfield in a story that ran Wednesday: "We have some administrative concerns with problems of protocol and process. Mainly, we're moving in another direction at this point."

What that direction is is puzzling to everyone on the outside, including Lee. How could a coach who has won 143 games and five state championships in six years not be taking the basketball program in a direction that it wanted to go?

Lee and a number of people believe that his departure was triggered by the coach's permitting players in an adult basketball league that is funded by his brother's foundation to use the school's gym Dec. 17. Lee, however, said the gym had been used in that manner before that date not only by his brother Kurk's 30-and-over post office league, but by other groups as well.

Lee said he had been suspended by Shaw before the beginning of the season for an indefinite period, but the suspension was changed to three games, Lee said, before he was terminated as coach. Lee said he hadn't coached the Poets all season.

Lurking in the background is the specter of a 2004 case in which a city schools employee, who was responsible for renting out school buildings and facilities, pleaded guilty in both U.S. District and Baltimore Circuit courts to charges of bank fraud, misappropriation of funds and felony theft.

Lewis E. Williams was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to surrender two luxury cars after he pleaded guilty to charges that he accepted checks totaling more than $220,000 for the rental of school facilities but deposited the money into personal accounts, and used the money to pay bills and buy items for his own use over a 16-month period.

To be sure, no one is accusing Lee of malfeasance, but the Williams case is the kind of thing that makes the hairs on the necks of administrators all the way to the school system's North Avenue headquarters stand on end. If Kurk Lee's group should have been paying for use of the gym, Eric Lee's allowing them to play without rent deprived the cash-starved school system of funds.

Of course, there is the little matter of liability. Lee and those six teams placed Shaw and the school system at serious risk. What would have happened if any of them had slipped on the floor and ripped up a knee or broken a leg? Worse yet, suppose someone had been shot or attacked while in the building without any school system security personnel on hand?

Who would have been responsible, and how quickly would the damaged party have sued the school system? For Lee, who said he apologized, to have put Shaw and the system in that position was unthinkably irresponsible, and he should have been held accountable.

The question is, to what extent? An outsider, looking at Lee's record, not just on the court, but also for getting the nine seniors on last year's team into college, might wonder whether an extended slap on the wrist and a zero tolerance policy moving forward might be more appropriate.

An outsider might also wonder whether the fact that Dunbar had been more successful in College Park than in the city league, where it hadn't won a championship since 2004, might have had something to do with the desire to move "in a different direction."

Those are all questions that should be answered and soon, so that everyone - students, parents and alumni - knows the direction Dunbar is headed.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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