Major county youth soccer group files lawsuit against Montgomery school system

A Montgomery County Council committee on Monday sidestepped a battle between the school system and the county’s major recreational youth soccer organization, giving its go-ahead for bidding on a synthetic turf playing field at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac but saying it would not weigh in on what has become a legal clash.

Montgomery Soccer Inc., a nonprofit group with more than 900 teams and nearly 15,000 players, filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court against school officials in early July, claiming the school system used “a flawed and unlawful process” in awarding the use of two stadium fields “to elite clubs that serve only a limited fraction — the wealthiest — of the County’s youth.”

The group also filed the complaint with the Maryland State Board of Education.

Montgomery school leaders have used public-private partnerships in recent years to help fund new turf fields at some high schools. The athletic organizations that become partners make substantial financial commitments and then use the fields during certain hours.

Doug Schuessler, executive director of the Montgomery soccer group, alleged Monday that the lawsuit came after a troubled bid process — including apparent conflicts of interest and false statements — that will ultimately affect less-privileged soccer players.

“The broad spectrum of kids are not being well served,” Schuessler said. “The notion that only children that are participating in elite athletic programs or that are participating in programs that are fairly exclusively from wealthy communities deserve the opportunity to play on good fields is a flawed presumption.”

Montgomery school officials have rebutted the allegations but said they would not try the case through the news media. The complaint is “wholly and completely without merit,” said Brian Edwards, chief communications officer for Montgomery schools.

The soccer group’s lawsuit came after the organization sought to bid for partnerships on several fields, with the complaint largely focused on the process for the field at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville and the proposed field at Churchill.

The suit alleges that in March the soccer group was told “categorically” that it had been selected for the Richard Montgomery project. The suit claims that school officials later informed the group that the Bethesda Soccer Club had been chosen. When the process was scrapped and redone, Bethesda Soccer again prevailed, according to the lawsuit.

Greg Dillon, president of the Bethesda club, with 72 teams, said his organization had two prior partnerships with the school system involving fields at Walter Johnson and Wootton high schools. He said he thinks the Montgomery school system’s bidding process “was done in accordance with their policies and procedures.”

Dillon added that the Bethesda club has “always been committed to providing opportunities to all socioeconomic demographics” and has awarded $250,000 in financial aid to players during the past three years. He declined to disclose player fees for his club.

Montgomery Soccer’s complaint also alleges that, for the Churchill project, school officials told the group they had received an “unbeatable” proposal. School officials selected a joint proposal from Bethesda Lacrosse Association and Potomac Soccer Association, the suit says, even though Montgomery Soccer offered better financial terms.

Marc Dubick, president of the Bethesda Lacrosse Association, said Monday that his bidding group, which included Potomac Soccer and the Churchill Booster Club, was “in no way part of the lawsuit” and had operated in good faith.

“All we tried to do here is follow the lead of other public-private partnerships,” he said.

Jonathan Weinberg, president of the Potomac Soccer Association, said in a statement that he took offense to any characterization that his organization only serves elite youth. He said the organization provides financial aid of more than $40,000 a year to help support its player fees and “serves kids of every economic background.”

At Monday’s meeting of the County Council’s education committee, Council President Craig Rice said the panel was aware of the legal action as it considered authorizing the school system to spend $1.3 million in private dollars on the turf project slated for Churchill in Potomac.

But Rice said that while the complaint reflects a dispute about who should be playing on the field, the idea of building the field was not at issue. The council will leave the legal conflict to the courts, he said. The full council is expected to vote Tuesday.

“It’s not up the council to decide whether there are merits to that court case or not,” said County Council member Phil Andrews, also on the education committee.

The committee’s decision was an early step in the process, Rice said. The lawsuit adds to the open questions about the field project, including “who’s going to play on it and what is it going to be made of.”

The county is seeking bids for a field made of traditional synthetic material and an alternate organic infill material. The committee vote included a requirement that the council review results of the bid process.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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