The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a fight over a city athletic field turned into a woke-off of Washington’s well-off

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Jelleff Recreation Center doesn’t exactly look like a hub of neighborhood controversy. Owned by the D.C. government and operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, it’s a slightly run-down facility tucked off Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown near a Safeway. An outdoor mural features a vibrant rainbow evoking an Eric Carle illustration, painted above the words “Bringing People Together.”

But lately this place is tearing people apart. Celina Gerbic, a Dupont Circle resident whose 16-year-old son plays soccer on Jelleff’s athletic field, has begun to worry that she could be physically assaulted on the premises. “You feel that way,” she told me, “because of the vehemence and vitriol.”

The cause of all these bad feelings is the city’s recent extension of a controversial agreement giving exclusive prime-time field hours at Jelleff to the Maret School, the elite private school in Woodley Park that Gerbic’s son attends. The District originally struck this bargain after the 2008 recession, when city budgets were tight and the field desperately needed repair. Maret invested $2.4 million for artificial turf, field lights and a pool on the property. In exchange, its student athletes were guaranteed use of a regulation field — where you can also play baseball and lacrosse — between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. on weekdays during the academic year. Though Maret has an athletic field on its grounds, the school says it’s not sufficient space for all its athletes.

Trouble is, there’s another school — a public one — right across the street from Jelleff. And Hardy Middle School has no playing field at all. Its student athletes are currently forced to travel long distances, sometimes up to an hour away, to find a field for their “home games.” And so there are those who think the Department of Parks and Recreation’s July decision to renew the pact with Maret until 2029 — with the school pledging to fund an additional $950,000 in improvements — wasn’t quite fair, especially now that D.C. government finances have improved. Over the past few months, more than 2,700 people have signed a petition condemning the move, arguing that a private school with a $34 million endowment shouldn’t monopolize public space at in-demand times.

Maret defenders believe they’re being scapegoated for Washington’s general lack of field space — unfairly maligned by a vicious smear campaign on social media, not to mention the scathing comments on the DC Urban Moms and Dads site. “Just say it: you are a pay-to-play sort of person” is one of the milder examples.

All this may sound like a classic David vs. Goliath story, but the truth is a bit more complicated. Yes, Maret is affluent, exclusive and politically connected — Ian Cameron, head of the school’s board of trustees, is married to former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice. But changes to D.C. school boundaries and attendance rights a few years back have also brought higher-income families to Hardy — precisely the kind of families that know how to organize and advocate for themselves. In the past, “people who made decisions didn’t care about Hardy,” says Martin Welles, vice president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, “and now we’re making them care.”

Welles got wind of the field problem two years ago, when his twins were Hardy sixth-graders and he signed them up for Jelleff’s free after-school program, which serves youths from across the city, including many low-income kids. He’d pick up his children from the rec center, and they’d always tell him they hadn’t been able to play outside. “I didn’t think it was right that the Jelleff field was unusable to the Jelleff rec center,” says the Southwest Waterfront resident and federal government lawyer.

Kishan Putta heard lots of stories like Welles’s as he was running for Georgetown’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission last year. “People would always talk about it if I was door-knocking,” the Burleith resident told me. “They’ve been unhappy about it for some time, but they didn’t think they could ever do anything to change it.” After Putta was elected, he and fellow Georgetown commissioner Elizabeth Miller set out to do just that. Miller published an opinion piece in The Washington Post. Their commission passed a resolution in opposition. And in October, the field-fight saga culminated in a packed-to-the-gills D.C. Council hearing where residents of some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the nation’s capital held a kind of woke-off of the well-off, with both sides vying for the righteous mantle of social justice in their ongoing turf war.

Putta described kids in Jelleff’s after-school programs as trapped in the rec center’s “windowless basement” and read plaintive quotes from Hardy students opposed to the Maret deal. He even invoked the recent death of a beloved civil rights icon to make his case. “In honor of the honorable Congressman Elijah Cummings,” Putta said, “I will start with Elijah, age 12.”

Numerous witnesses, meanwhile, echoed Maret parent Susan Reilly, who insisted that this field fracas “bears a resemblance to our nation’s divisive political landscape.” Patrick Scott, Maret’s director of middle school admissions and social media, warned that at “a time when there’s an active ‘cancel’ or ‘call out’ culture, it’s vitally important for elected officials and others to come to decisions while being fully informed.” Maret head of school Marjo Talbott noted that 24 percent of students get financial aid and 48 percent are nonwhite. “Our community,” she said, “is economically and ethnically diverse.” As Maret parent and D.C. developer Jim Abdo put it, the school is not an “elitist Wonder Bread sanctuary.”

Of course, none of this convinced critics who still see Maret as throwing its money around and city officials as bowing to its vast wealth. “Resources like this seem to foster a certain mentality,” huffed Burleith Citizens Association President Eric Langenbacher, “demanding that we, the members of the community, should continue to be thankful for all that Maret has paid out for the facility — a kind of noblesse oblige that I guess is kind of typical for this new gilded age.”

There will always be some irony in comfortable residents of Georgetown and Burleith casting themselves as populist champions. Yes, it doesn’t get much more elite than a private school charging $39,900 a year in high school tuition, but Hardy is also a public school on the rise, and that has made a difference in its fight against city hall. “It’s now one of the top-performing public middle schools in the city,” Welles told me. “It didn’t really have a voice 10 years ago, and now there’s a voice to advocate for these types of things.”

Graham Vyse is a writer in Washington.

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