The Alexandria School Board is studying whether it can add permanent lights to the football stadium at T.C. Williams High School, renewing a long-standing and contentious debate that has riled those who live in residential neighborhoods near the school west of Old Town.
The result of the study could bring Friday night football games to Parker-Gray stadium, the only public high school football field in Northern Virginia that does not have lights. With a single exception, the city has not lit games there since the school was built in the 1960s, under an agreement with neighbors. But officials believe it is time to give students, athletes and community members what most high schools across the country offer: Friday night events that can serve as rallying points.
“Our kids deserve to have the experience of playing under the lights,” said Dennis Randolph, the school’s football coach and assistant athletic director. The football team has played its home games on weekend afternoons, and it has been a struggle to fill the bleachers and juggle schedules with other teams, he said. “You’re never going to satisfy everybody. I think people are just afraid of change.”
Neighbors, who share a confined space with more than 2,500 teenagers and staff members and an ever-growing roster of activities, have long opposed lights.
Carter Flemming, vice president of the Seminary Hill Association, said neighbors are gearing up for a battle. But it’s not a battle about “Friday night lights,” she said.
Flemming, whose back yard abuts the stadium, and other residents are concerned that with so many teams and groups vying for the space, the “consistent and ongoing use” of the stadium could extend into the late hours.
“If you were living next to a lit-up recreational facility that was used 365 nights a year with lights shining in your house, crowds cheering, announcements — ‘Go to the concession stand’ — I think anyone would be upset,” Flemming said.
The agreement to stay dark at night withstood the school’s reconstruction in 2007, work that also brought a 3,000-seat football stadium and a synthetic-turf field.
But an experiment in 2010 — when the school helped fund $24,000 to light a special Friday night game — inspired those who believe it is time for a new approach.
That night, members of the 1971 team that took the newly integrated school to a state championship — a story celebrated in the 2000 movie “Remember the Titans” — attended, drawing an emotional response.
“I have never seen that many people at Parker-Gray stadium,” said Marc Williams, a member of the School Board. “It was exciting. I think it was a great way to build community.”
Interest in pursuing the stadium lights was ignited again in December when the City Council unanimously approved construction of six lighted tennis courts at T.C. Williams.
The courts had widespread support, but the lights drew lengthy debate because they required an amendment to the city’s agreement with neighbors. The City Council voted unanimously to install the lights, against recommendations from the Planning Commission.
Many neighbors called it a betrayal of trust and predicted that the tennis lights would lead to stadium lights.
At a public hearing about the tennis courts, Mayor William D. Euille (D), a graduate of T.C. Williams, said a discussion about lighting the stadium is “long overdue.”
“Times have changed, things have changed, technology has changed, and it’s not fair to penalize our students, the athletes or the community by not having the opportunity . . . to enjoy the quality of life with high school athletic events” that other schools have with the flexibility of both day and night games, Euille said.
Williams said it’s a good time to revisit the discussion about stadium lights. Light and sound technology have advanced so that it’s easier to limit the disturbance to neighbors, he said. And as the city’s population continues to grow, officials have been seeking to maximize the use of a limited number of fields and parks by keeping them open later.
On Monday, the School Board sent letters to 270 neighbors surrounding the high school to notify them of the feasibility study and to invite them to an open meeting at the high school, scheduled for 6 p.m. June 9, according to a school district spokesman.
The feasibility study is scheduled to be released June 14, and School Board members plan to review the findings at a meeting June 19, before their deliberations about the district’s long-term plans for capital improvements.
If the School Board decides to request a change to the city’s agreement with neighbors, the proposal would have to make it through additional community meetings and be approved by the City Council. New lights also would be contingent on funding; the study is expected to identify potential costs. The tennis court lights are expected to cost $220,000.
For the school’s 50th anniversary, T.C. Williams plans to play its second Friday night home football game Oct. 17, its Homecoming contest against Lee High School. The portable lights will cost $25,000, Randolph said.