About 200 people rallied at the District Building in yesterday afternoon's sunshine and 70-degree temperatures to protest recent recreation department layoffs that they say are unfair to children and recreation workers alike.
Under Mayor Marion Barry's 1979 mandate, the recreation department must reduce its staff from a 1979 high of just over 700 positions to 443 by April 30 -- a reduction in force (known as RIF) that has caused the actual release of some 150 people citywide, most of them recreation specialists and maintenance workers. Attrition and transfers have accounted for the rest, according to department director William H. Rumsey.
"It's a beautiful day," said Mary Payne, director of the Shaw Recreation Center and one of the protest's organizers, "but a sad, sad event."
Shouts of agreement mingled with the playful shouts of children who darted among the crowd of casually dressed protestors, some of whom carried signs that said "Rec was fun," and "No Rec -- Where do the children go from here?"
"Children," a recreation worker from Ward 2 told the crowd, "are the future of our city."
While Councilman John L. Ray spoke at one point, a group of 11- and 12-year-old cheerleaders practiced routines in an open area of the square along Pennsylvania at the District Building. The temperature hovered in the 70s for most of the day, which yesterday's protestors began with a march from Hine Junior High at 7th and C streets SE.
Bill Fisher, a recreation roving leader in Southwest and Southeast Washington, is a member of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents recreation workers, as is Payne. He stood off to one side of the impromptu stage, shouting to be heard over the sound of the Junkyard Band, a group of Anacostia 9- to 15-year-olds whose funky rhythms were being pounded out on tin cans, cardboard boxes and empty paint drums.
"What is happening here is happening all across the country," said Fisher. "Recreation is low man on the totem pole, it isn't seen as important to maintaining the quality of life of the citizens.
"It's just as important as anything else, certainly it is," he said. "It would be like cutting off a finger."
Dennis G. Homesley, 34, a roving leader who said his last day is April 17, expressed fear about what he said cutbacks will mean to children who get much of their drug abuse counseling from recreation specialists: "Drug abuse is reaching epidemic proportions. That's why we have so much bizarre behavior in the schools," he said. These kids need people who'll pay attention to them, people who have the right information."
While his methods differed from those of the Junkyard Band, Councilman Ray managed to coax a few hands together himself when he spoke to the crowd. He took issue again with what he called the mayor's "panic" to cut city costs fast -- and hence with a RIF program that gives city employes not much more than a month's notice of termination.
"The human suffering that results when you try, like this, to balance a budget overnight -- it's just too much," Ray said later. He favors instead a hiring freeze and a three- or four-year plan to reduce the girth of the ciry's buracracy.
"We have to set priorities," he said. "We have to decide: are ANCs [advisory neighborhood commissions], for example, more important than our young people? The point is, if we don't save our future leaders, we may not have any ANCs tomorrow."