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A private school saved a public D.C. field. Should it get preference for playing time?

The playing field at Jelleff Recreation Center in Northwest Washington.
The playing field at Jelleff Recreation Center in Northwest Washington. ( and The Maret School)
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A dispute over a place to play soccer and baseball in Northwest Washington on Monday morphed into a broad debate about equity in the District, a city with stark disparities rooted in class.

D.C. lawmakers heard hours of emotional testimony on Monday from parents and students about a controversial arrangement that allows the private Maret School near-exclusive access to a public field across the street from Hardy Middle School in Georgetown.

City officials and Maret leaders defended a no-bid deal that allows the elite K-12 school the right to use the field at Jelleff Recreation Center during prime after-school hours until 2029. In exchange, the school with a $34 million endowment has agreed to pay $950,000 for maintenance and some renovations to the field and adjacent recreation center.

The arrangement is an extension of a 2009 agreement with the city, in which Maret spent $2.4 million for new turf, a remodeled outdoor pool and outdoor lighting in exchange for use of the field during prime hours.

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At the time, the nation was still recovering from the 2008 recession and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation welcomed a way to fund improvements to Jelleff.

But critics and some lawmakers question whether a city now flush with cash still needs Maret’s help to maintain a public facility. And they note that the deal means that students at Hardy are blocked from using the field during prime hours, forcing their sports teams to travel across the city to compete. Under the arrangement, Hardy, which does not have a regulation field on its campus, is allowed to use Jelleff only on Wednesdays.

Katrina Tracy testified about the challenges of playing soccer as a Hardy student without regular access to the field next door.

She said she frequently missed her last classes of the day to travel for games and practiced alongside the boy’s soccer team at Hardy’s outdoor space: a cramped, oval-shaped piece of land with no lines and no full-size goals. The arrangement with Maret meant she never played a single home game in her years at Hardy, she said.

“No one ever explained why public school students couldn’t use the public field across the street from us,” said Tracy, now a freshman at School Without Walls. “To allow a private school five days a week at the prime time is the epitome of private-school privilege.”

Others noted that children who attend after-school programs at Jelleff are also blocked from using the field.

But Kendrick Curry II, a Maret junior and a baseball player, said the opportunity to practice at Jelleff, which has one of the few regulation-size playing fields in Northwest, is part of what drew him to Maret.

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“Without funding from Maret, Jelleff would be nonexistent,” said Curry, who lives in Ward 7. “Jelleff is also our home, and it is a significant part of Maret continuing to thrive as a school so Maret can continue to serve our community.”

Curry and Tracy were among the few students to testify at Monday’s daytime hearing. The council chamber was at capacity with hundreds of mostly adult attendees. Maret alumni, employees, parents and students turned out to defend their school from what they described as smears.

Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who leads the committee overseeing the parks department, convened Monday’s hearing to hear public testimony and to question city officials about their handling of the deal.

Some who spoke urged the council members to pass legislation to prevent similar no-bid partnerships. They noted that the contours of the agreement — less than $1 million and fewer than 10 years — meant it could be approved by a city agency and didn’t require review by the D.C. Council. Decisions about the use of public facilities should first be scrutinized by elected leaders, they said.

Delano Hunter, the director of the parks department, was expected to testify that the best way to serve D.C. residents who can’t use the Jelleff field during prime hours is to create a field at nearby Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

“We are confident that our good faith effort to be fiscally responsible in continuing a longstanding relationship with an excellent partner was the best decision,” Hunter’s prepared remarks say.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose son attended Maret and whose district includes Jelleff, on Monday defended the city’s relationship with the private school.

“Without this investment, the field and pool would have sat vacant for many more years,” Evans said.

Council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) questioned whether the arrangement was in the best interest of the city.

“Maret’s interests are not the District’s interests,” said Silverman. “Yes, in 2009 those interests coincided. But I’m not sure that’s true now, [or] in 2020.”

Maret supporters said they resented how the dispute had been framed by some as a wealthy school asserting its privilege.

Susan Reilly, who said one of her children attended public school and another Maret, said she was “outraged over this angry smear campaign” against the private school. “This rich-kid-poor-kid scenario is an easy potshot,” Reilly said.

A Twitter account, @MaretGoAway, sharply argued against the deal, frequently posting with the hashtag #RichKidsWinAgain. A viral Deadspin article summed up the situation with the headline: “The Legendary Public Rec Center In A Private School’s Pocket.”

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“They accused our children of being the quote, ‘Children of the powerful’ and denied quote, ‘black and brown kids’ access to the field,” said Ian Cameron, who leads the school’s board of trustees. “Canceling the Jelleff agreement would do nothing to address the real culprit here . . . insufficient playable space in D.C.”

Lawmakers also decried some of the vitriol leveled at the school.

“Maret was not wrong here trying to meet a need that their school community had for more field space,” Robert White said in his opening remarks. “I do believe, however, that our agencies were wrong to enter into an agreement that stripped the community of access to their field that they need.”

Others said they were grateful to Maret for helping renovate the field, but they objected to extending the deal.

“The question now is about access, and how that access is being given and who has the access,” said Abi Paulsen, a co-president of the parent-teacher organization at Hardy. “There’s essentially another generation of kids that won’t have access.”

Supporters of the deal with Maret warned that if the District breaks the agreement, the city risks scaring away other organizations from partnering with the government.

But critics countered that the extension of the deal creates its own troubling precedent.

“Prime-time access for $950,000 when the District is seriously prosperous?” said Mary Levy, an education budget analyst. “The District is short on public fields as it is, and yet on that rationale, every single public field in the District is in danger of being taken from the public to serve moneyed private entities.”

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