Few cities in America could match the list of woes that have beset Cleveland's school system in the last three years:

It ran up a $36 million debt and almost went bankrupt.

Its teachers spent more than 100 days on picket lines instead of in classrooms.

A U.S. District Court judge found its board and top officials in civil contempt and stripped them of virtually all desegregation powers, in essence placing the school system in partial receivership.

Its school board president pleaded no-contest to a charge that he "mooned" (exposed his buttocks) in a prank involving his brother.

Yet for all these indignities, Cleveland is more an example of America's big-city school systems than an aberration. Its labor troubles, fiscal difficulties, substandard reading scores and conflicts with courts are among the problems of Chicago, Boston, St. Louis and Washington as well.

No easy solutions are at hand. Many parents and teachers alike seem overcome with a sense of hopelessness.

The euphoria of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society raised high hopes of rebuilding public education in urban areas, of providing racial integration and quality education for poor minorities.

Money was seen as the answer. Since then, billions of dollars have been pumped into school districts to finance new and innovative programs. Yet today three out of four black children still attend "racially isolated" (mostly black) schools in the North, and serious questions continue to be raised about the educational achievement of poor children.

In Cleveland, as in some other communities, many people say that more money is not the solution.

They contend that mismanagement, misplaced priorities, politics and fear of new ideas are the main obstacles and that more money would only perpetuate an entrenched bureaucracy that is a proven failure in preparing children for their futures.

This is a view that the children themselves seem to hold.

"A person needs an education and you can't get it with all this confusion taking away from school," says Tamara Horne, a student at Central Junior High. "The board of education is not doing anything but playing around with childrens' lives."

Cleveland has a rich industrial tradition and vital neighborhoods of Irish, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Romanians, and other ethnic groups. But its social problems are self-evident. Two out of three of its 89,000 school children are black; many of them are poor. Almost all of them that sweep eastward from the Cuvahoga River. And recession and global economic shifts have closed or slowed down the in-town factories, steel plants, scrap yards and machine shops on which families depend.

It is against this economic and social background that the school problem arises, leaving many parents, teachers and children openly anxious and angry.

Annette Hofstetter, environmental-science teacher at East Tech High School and 21-year veteran of the Cleveland system, fears that "it's going to be difficult" for the school's graduates, almost all of whom are black.

A fair number of her 10-th grade students have "no concept of decimal points," and "simple math is difficult for at least half."

Hofstetter, who has a child of her own in a suburban school, does not attempt to hide her discouragement.

"You don't give library assignments because you wouldn't want kids going out to the public library at night," she says, "It's not safe." (Several days before the close of schools the East Tech school library was locked during class hours; students could enter it with permission.)

'Ofstetter says she has considered taking her class out to clean up the neighborhood -- a direct environmental experience -- but gave it up as a "lost cause."

"In the first place I'd have to get permission to go outside the school grounds," she explained. "And in the second place, nobody cares."

A 1974 study commissioned by the board of education found that student reading test results were poor at upper levels and below average or stable at intermediate ones.

"Somewhere along the line somebody has done a lot of lying to these kids," says David Bloome, a reading teacher at Central Junior High. "Most kids here believe they read adequately, but they can't pull out ideas. They think copying something from a book is comprehension. Kids talk a blue streak but don't say a word in class."

Two years ago, money for sports programs and most extracurricular activities was eliminated at Central and all other junior highs. This year some federal money was available under the EmergencySchool Assistance Act, but most of the time and materials for the programs were provided by the teachers and principals themselves.

Roy Woda, a transplanted New Yorker, supplied all his own darkroom equipment for a school camera club. He proudly displays photographs developed by students this year.

"You can't do without these extracurricular activities," says Central principal Elbet Cobbs. "You can't expect kids to adjust socially or learn each others' names without them."

For Woda, teaching and working with children is a labor of love. "I've found a home at Central," he says. "I love teaching integrated classes. I love teaching science."

Yet Woda supported a teachers strike last year that closed classrooms for 11 weeks -- evidence of the depth of his discontent with pay and conditions.

"The folks who are running this system don't have a stake in the education of kids," says Audubon Junior High teacher Joanne DeMarco, who leads a reform faction of the teachers' union and was narrowly defeated for union president in the most recent election.

Average teacher salaries still lag behind those of other big cities even after the January settlement, union officials say. Pay of a teacher with five years experience went from $12,058 a year before the strike to $13,258. Next year, pay will rise to $15,201.

Since the strike, teachers have been chastised in the community. A special education teacher from East Tech told how she was berated on a recent dentist visit by an office assistant who shouted: "I hope they make you work till September like the rest of us!" The teacher explained she worked nights in a department store during the strike to pay rent and fuel bills.

In their own defense, the teachers contend that they have been victimized as much as their students by a school administration that has allowed its management, programs and overall conditions to deteriorate.

According to the Office on School Monitoring, which was set up by the court to check on desegregation progress, the citywide dropout rate in grades 10 through 12 was 40 percent, and the percentage was even higher in predominantly black schools on the East Side.

"Pick a school -- any school -- and you'll find attendance is often 40 percent what it should be," says OSM's director Leonard Stevens.

At Central, a model of racial integration, about 200 of the 1,229 children were absent on an average day in the first semester and 300 in the second semester, principal Cobbs said.

For many city officials and community leaders, the absentee and dropout figures add up to a belief that the Cleveland school system, for whatever reasons, is simply not doing its job.

Stevens, who was appointed by a federal court to monitor progress on desegration, says the system is "close to being an educational wasteland."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has called the situation "scandalous," and U.S. District Court Judge Frank J. Battisti wrote in 1978, "it was painfully clear that no amount of desegregation could harm this school system." p

In his decision Friday to place responsibility for desegregation in the hands of an administrator he will appoint later, Battisti said "the pervasive maladministration borders on reckless conduct . . . The court has no alternative except to conclude that the Cleveland defendants are in civil contempt."

Battisti further involved invited the Justice Department "to examine the transcript of these proceedings to ascertain whether there is probable cause to believe perjury or other crimes have been committed."

Recently elected school board member Kenneth F. Seminatore worries that the system "probably has condemned at least a generation or two of its graduates to substandard lives."

For its part, the school board has disputed Stevens' claims and charged him with inaccurately reporting school problems to the court.

Board president John E. Gallagher, who gained national notoriety as a result of the "mooning" prank on a local freeway in 1978, said in an interview he was not satisfied with the education received by Cleveland children. But he insisted that the problems primarily have to do with money.

"Yes, there's much to be desired.No, the school system is not a warehouse for kids," he said.

In 1978, the board negotiated a $20.7 million loan from the state to pay off debts and avert bankruptcy. Since then the deficits have been cut, but the future is uncertain.

Gallagher says that as soon as desegregation is complete, he plans to ask the community to approve new levies.

However, board critics insist that money is not the real problem in Cleveland.

The system's 1978-79 per pupil spending was $1,945 -- more than some wealthy Cleveland suburbs spent.And with enrollment dropping fast, per-pupil spending should rise.

Gallagher says the city can't be compared with the suburbs because of high costs of Cleveland labor and extra costs of desegregation.

Nancy Oakley, who served on a school budget committee and campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat on the board, lays the system's financial problems to the lavish building programs of the 1970s, patronage and bureaucratic overhead. She notes that the share of the school budget going directly to education has declined from 70 percent in 1970 to under 60 percent now.

Oakley claims that board members have a "hidden political agenda." None of the seven has a child in city schools, and Gallagher, 30, attended parochial schools.

In all this controversy, Clevelanders still manage to find one bright spot -- the children themselves.

"Most of them are just beautiful," said an assistant principal.

Through last Wednesday, thousands of them sweltered in summer classrooms to make up time lost during the teachers' strike.

When the administration began implementing the desegregation plan last year, two years behind schedule, hundreds were stranded at bus stops because of transportation snarls. But the kids kept showing up while the trouble was ironed out.

Whoever is responsible for the difficulties in Cleveland's schools, there is no question of who are its primary victims -- the low-income citizens, most of them black, who cannot take the traditional escape route to the suburbs.

"You finally do have to come to the conclusion that there really is a sort of conspiracy in this country to keep the poor poor," says Oakley. "Would they stand on street corners and drink bottles of mad dog in brown paper bags if they knew they were qualified, if they knew they could read? As long as they blame themselves, they're just not a threat."